Friday, August 20, 2010

Can Government Prevent Disasters?

I am disheartened by the news of the recent bus tragedy in Benguet whereby some 41 people died when the Bus fell into the ravine.

Yet we hear some sectors intuitively propose government to intervene, in the assumption that government can indeed forestall disaster. Again “romancing the government” without examining the cost benefit tradeoffs.

Here is why I think government can’t help in preventing disasters, (even if you install a communist government)

1. Government officials don’t know and can’t tell the future.

2. Government officials don’t know and can’t tell ALL the ongoing changes in the environment.

3. Government officials don’t know and can’t tell ALL the spontaneous actions of tens of millions of people.

4. Government officials don’t know and can’t tell ALL the conditions of the vehicles that people use.

5. Government officials don’t know and can’t tell ALL the impact of the interactions of the people, the vehicles and the environment.

In short, it will ALWAYS BE A KNOWLEDGE problem.

So unless, someone can enlighten me on the supposed omniscience of government, from such premises, no matter what the government does, they won’t be able to prevent disasters.

At worst, they could enhance it.


First, every government intervention entails a bureaucracy.

Two, every bureaucracy comes with financing charged to taxpayers. So if the government plans to reduce accidents by having people NOT to travel by imposing onerous taxes, then this would be the way to go. That’s because people will be too poor to travel. Yet quality of life can be associated with impact of disasters (Think Haiti)

Three every regulations will benefit one group at the expense of the other.

A great example of this would be the Philippine Maritime industry.

Out of the world’s 176 worst maritime disaster, the Philippines owns 6 of them and has the inglorious status of having the worst, the MV Dona Paz.

Well, it’s NOT that the maritime industry has been lacking regulation. The fact is the opposite the industry have SATED with regulations.

As I previously wrote,

It is a peculiar development why despite the repeated accidents by the same shipping company, consumers continue to patronize such private entity. The answer is the lack of choice.

None in the media has brought out the fact that the domestic shipping industry is a very tightly regulated industry.

Imagine, aside from 5 agencies that directly supervise the industry; namely, Maritime Industry Authority, Philippine Ports Authority, Bureau of Customs Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas and the Philippine Shippers Bureau, there are another twenty six (26) other agencies directly or indirectly regulate the inter-island freight shipping industry (NEDA’s Philippine Institute for Development Studies). Incredible red tape!

THIRTY ONE Agencies regulating the Shipping Industry yet the repeat disasters?! Why?

Because the bureaucratic red tape has served as a substantial barrier from competition to the benefit of the incumbent industry players.

And when consumers have been left with no choice, they will be forced to patronize even when the services offered are inferior or when their lives are put to risk. Ergo, the repeat disasters.

Another, there is such a thing called “regulatory capture”. It’s when the interests of the industry have “captured” the regulators, or when regulators and the protected industry dance the proverbial tango.

In many instances, regulators find their career outside public service in the industry which they once regulated. In short, the interest of the regulators tends to align with the interest of the regulated for personal motives such as career or otherwise. (As I said regulators are HUMAN Beings and look after their personal interest FIRST). Thus, by keeping chummy they open the doors for laxity in supervision and risk of disasters.

Four, regulators are obsessed with rules and NOT with pleasing the consumers. Yet rules don’t and won’t incorporate everything that is known for the benefit of society. The fundamental premise of which anew is the Knowledge problem and of the interest of diverse groups involved in shaping the laws.

So instead of looking for the welfare of their clients or the consumers, industry providers will be forced to pay attention FIRST to comply with the web of laws.

And the cost of compliance is the obverse side of disaster, industry players tend to stick by the standards (regulations) and ignore the cost of a potential disaster from a black swan or a random event.

Remember life is dynamic, new technology, environmental changes and evolving consumer patterns among others contribute to “randomness”. Even new laws contribute to changes in people’s behaviour, which add to randomness or life’s complexities.

At the end of the day, if an accident from a black swan event happens, then the industry players can go scotch free since they are outside the ambit of government imposed standards.

Of course, unless consumers are deemed to be so dumb, then always the excuse for government intervention.

But in contrast to this, consumers can always be empowered to render discipline on the providers, if given the chance.

That is if they allow competition to determine their cost-benefit tradeoffs relative to the price, quality and safety of the product they use or consume.

It’s funny and an irony how we tend to TRUST the people to make the “right” choices about the leadership in elections, yet degrade their capabilities when they account to choose for their own self-interest which they have a direct stakeholding, when dealing with personal needs and wants. It’s a reasoning gone backwards.

Another, outside regulations and the consumers, the other source of discipline are tort laws. If the judicial system will be facilitative into rendering judicious resolution and indemnity to the aggrieved parties, then obviously no business interests would in the right mind NOT to seek the interest of the consumers because they will and can be sued out of existence.

In short, you don’t need more government intervention, what you need is more competition and judicious facilitation of tort laws.


I’d like to thank Nonoy Oplas for his most valued input (see comment section).

Nevertheless, let me clarify that the Jeepney industry can’t be classified as an open competition but a regulated competition. As an analogy, if you have (x number of) pets in a cage and throw food into it, your pets will “compete” for the food you throw. There is “competition” but the competition is limited by your actions (as pet owner), or in the case of the Jeepney, the government.

Jeepneys are essentially covered by a slew of regulations, these includes franchise restrictions, territorial coverage, allowable fees to charge (public tolls), vehicle type and engine specifications, road use, traffic regulations—the latter, of which are vacillatingly implemented, and perhaps many more (this would need to be researched and a topic for another day).

Thus, I wouldn’t generalize that discourteousness of many Jeepney drivers as a result of “competition” but from a combination of many of these regulations which has skewed the behaviour of drivers towards “incivility”.

One shouldn’t forget the uneven application and occasional boorish behaviour of the implementing officers and notwithstanding the “palakasan” attitude as a result of political dependence could also be contributing factors. So there are many many many factors influencing the Jeepney industry.

Since buses have “higher barriers to entry”, one might say they seem more professional in competition. But I have my reservations. This needs more research before making any conclusions. Some like Victory Liner which has been a favourite of mine seem to respond to “competition”.

The transport sector is more a regulated competition than a free market competition. Hence, the beneficial effects from competition may NOT be apparent, since they are suppressed.

Of course, in agreement with Nonoy's suggestion, open competition, the abolishment of government agencies, facilitation of the tort laws, and the rule of law should matter most. One can use the this experiment as example.


Nonoy Oplas said...

Agree, Benson. Let us specify and qualify competition -- let there be brand competition. Jeepneys, thousands of them, compete with each other, but they have no corporate brand, they compete as individual units. Thus, they can be reckless and discourteous (like stopping in the middle of the road) and they risk not losing any credibility.

Bus lines compete on brand: Victory, Five Star, Philtranco, Penafrancia, Dagupan, Ceres, Jam, etc. When one of the buses of any of those bus lines meet an accident, the whole brand or the entire bus company is affected. Thus, internal control among each bus company is very strict. The pressure to bus drivers not to be involved in any accident -- zero accident goal -- is high. And this protects passengers. Zero government regulation needed there.

Nonoy Oplas said...

Pare, better to abolish the LTFRB, or change its mandate to promotional, not regulatory, of transpo franchises. All jeepneys should belong to a jeepney corporation or cooperative, they should belong to a jeepney brand. A jeepney brand, say brand A, will have a distinct corporate or coop entity, will have one design, and can field jeepneys in various routes.

Passengers will remember the brand -- more courteous drivers, don't over-charge, they follow traffic rules, don't stop in the middle of the road, more comfortable units, don't overload their jeepneys, etc. Those brands that have ugly record and have no reputation will go bankrupt. Or they will be forced to improve their services to regain passenger loyalty. Zero govt role to improve the services of jeepney. Govt comes in only in disputes like accidents and there are casualties. Govt enforces the rule of law -- laws to protect passengers' right to life, right to safe travel.