Prices mean something, even life and death

In the five years since Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, some $15 billion has been spent rebuilding and strengthening that city’s flood defenses. The goal is to protect against the loss of life and property that happened in 2005 when the levies failed.

Is this wise? Will it work? Mark Thornton wrote “The sad truth is that the government is only making things worse over time. Higher levies only increase the destructive force of future levy breaks.”

But engineers say that if Katrina arrived today, the city would experience only light flooding. But what will happen in the future? The network of flood protection structures and machinery needs constant maintenance. Reporting in the Wall Street Journal cautions that “Another big question is who will pay the tens of millions of dollars in annual maintenance costs for the new structures once they are complete. Typically, the Corps hands the responsibility of upkeep to state and local authorities after completing a flood-control project. But city officials say the infrastructure is so large and complex that they don’t have the technical expertise to go it alone — or pay for it alone.”

So there is a definite risk that the strengthening of the city’s flood defenses may make future failures even more disastrous. There’s also the risk that these structures will not be maintained as required. In the latter case, how will we know if the protections are being maintained adequately?

The answer is we probably won’t know. That’s because the property in New Orleans is insured by the federal government’s flood insurance program. That program, unlike private insurance, doesn’t have to earn a profit, and therefore doesn’t have to price its insurance according to the risks it is covering.

That’s different from the way fire insurance, for example, is priced. In this case, fire insurance companies have to price their product to cover their expected loses, their other costs, and return some profit. The expected loses are based on a variety of factors, such as characteristics of the home, distance from a fire hydrant, and the qualities of a city’s fire department.

Many cities have their fire departments rated by a company called Insurance Services Office (ISO). This rating is a major factor in the insurance rates that companies will offer to customers in a city. If a city’s ISO rating declines, meaning that its fire defenses are not as good as before, insurance rates will rise. People will notice. They’ll wonder why and seek answers.

But government does not face the discipline of profit as do private insurers. As has been noted, government will insure insane risks for very low premiums. And if it pays a loss, it will insure the same property again. Since it isn’t in the insurance business to make money, it doesn’t really have much motive to rate the risk of the property it is insuring.

That’s the source of the problem. The New Orleans flood protection systems lacked the oversight and inquiring eyes of profit-minded companies. The result was death and destruction on a massive scale.

So prices and their importance are not of interest only to economists and academics. They contain, as Hayek has taught us, a tremendous amount of information gathered from many sources. Prices can literally mean the difference between life and death.

Some may object that insurance in some locations, like New Orleans, would be expensive if it was priced to reflect the actual risk faced. That’s probably true, and that’s good. When that extra cost is spread across the entire country through government insurance programs, residents of New Orleans can get cheap insurance. But as we’ve seen, the cost of the missing information that accurate prices provide is very high.

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