When Haitians leave Haiti for the U.S. they get richer almost overnight. This isn't simply because wages are higher here or welfare payments more generous. Coming to America is a cultural leap of faith, physically and psychologically. Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz note in their phenomenal new book, "From Poverty to Prosperity," that low-skilled Mexican laborers become 10 to 20 times more productive simply by crossing the border into the United States. William Lewis, former director of the McKinsey Global Institute, found that illiterate, non-English-speaking Mexican agricultural laborers in the U.S. were four times more productive than the same sorts of laborers in Brazil.
Why? Because American culture not only expects hard work, but teaches the unskilled how to work hard.
It's true that Haiti has few natural resources, but neither do Japan or Switzerland. What those countries do have are what Kling and Schulz call valuable "intangible assets" -- the skills, rules, laws, education, knowledge, customs, expectation, etc. -- that drives a prosperous society to generate prosperity. That is where the real wealth of nations is to be found -- not in factories, oil deposits and gold mines, but in our heads and in the habits of our hearts. Indeed, a recent World Bank study found that 82 percent of America's wealth could be found in our intangible assets.
Haiti's poverty stems from its lack of intangible capital. It shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, and yet the Dominicans have six times the GDP (and are far better stewards of their environment).
Collectively, Haiti depends on the kindness of strangers much more than on itself. Before the earthquake, Haiti had 10,000 nongovernmental organizations working there, the highest rate per capita in the world. In 2007, notes Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, they had 10 times as much foreign aid as investment. If people are determined to blame Haiti's problems on someone other than the Haitians, perhaps they could start by looking at the damage done by the foreign-aid industry.
I admit that I have a soft spot for Haiti, in part because the country is such an incredible underdog, and I've always admired the Haitian-Americans I've known. I also have Haitians in my family -- my brother is married to a Haitian immigrant.
So I say this with the best of intentions. Once the dead are buried, the wounded and sick healed and the rubble cleared, it's time for some tough love. Otherwise, Americans will just be back to clear the debris after the next disaster.
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