Thomas Sowell

One of the things that makes it tough to figure out how much has to be charged for insurance is that people behave differently when they are insured from the way they behave when they are not insured.

In other words, if one person out of 10,000 has his car set on fire, and it costs an average of $10,000 to restore the car to its previous condition, then it might seem as if charging one dollar to all 10,000 people would be enough to cover the cost of paying $10,000 to the one person whose car that will need to be repaired. But the joker in this deal is that people whose cars are insured may not be as cautious as other people are about what kinds of neighborhoods they park their car in.

The same principle applies to government policies. When taxpayer-subsidized government insurance policies protect people against flood damage, more people are willing to live in places where there are greater dangers of flooding. Often these are luxury beach front homes with great views of the ocean. So what if they suffer flood damage once every decade or so, if Uncle Sam is picking up the tab for restoring everything?

Television reporter John Stossel has told how he got government insurance "dirt cheap" to insure a home only a hundred feet from the ocean. Eventually, the ocean moved in and did a lot of damage, but the taxpayer-subsidized insurance covered the costs of fixing it. Four years later, the ocean came in again, and this time it took out the whole house. But the taxpayer-subsidized government insurance paid to replace the whole house.

This was not a unique experience. More than 25,000 properties have received government flood insurance payments more than four times. Over a period of 28 years, more than 4,000 properties received government insurance payments exceeding the total value of the property. If you are located in a dangerous place, repeated damage can easily add up to more than the property is worth, especially if the property is damaged and then later wiped out completely, as John Stossel's ocean-front home was.

Although "moral hazard" is an insurance term, it applies to other government policies besides insurance. International studies show that people in countries with more generous and long-lasting unemployment compensation spend less time looking for jobs. In the United States, where unemployment compensation is less generous than in Western Europe, unemployed Americans spend more hours looking for work than do unemployed Europeans in countries with more generous unemployment compensation.

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

Creators Syndicate