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Bad allocations in southern Italy

March 29, 2012 - Harry Eagar
RtO will continue examining the theological belief that free markets are always the most efficient allocators of resources. This example is taken from David von Drehle's history of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire oin 1911, which until the Muslim attacks on the World Trade Center was the most deadly workplace fire in Manhattan history. In the quoted paragraphs. von Drehle is explaining why millions of Italians emigrated to the United States.

You should be beginning to catch hold of a theme: When free market failures occur, they are often not only catastrophic but irreversible. It is one thing to build too many condos in south Florida, another entirely to destroy the agricultural system of south Italy forever. Thus von Drehle:

"About 60% of the Triangle workerss, along with management and, of course, the owners were Eastern European Jews. Most of the rest came from Italy, part of of a migration even larger than the Jewish exodus. A few who made this trip were skilled tradesmen or political refugees from the north of Italy. But most, by far, were penniless peasants from the rural south. Italian immigration to the United States in the 30 years before 1911 averaged 1.2 million people per decade; of these, five-sixths were unskilled rural laborers. [RTO note: including my mother's family, who came from Liguria in the north.]

"They were fleeing an environmental disaster. The end of feudalism and of the Papal States in the 19th century put millions of acres of Italian land in private hands. Nearly every new owner made the same decision: to cut down the trees, hoping to sell the lumber and expand the fields. The result was massive soil erosion along the dhillsides of once beautiful southern provinces like Calabria, Basilicata, Apulia and Campania. Topsoil washed into the rivers, ruining the farm economy. When the silted rivers flooded in the wet winter months, they created low stagnant pools and swamps, which in turn bred mosquitoes, which produced epidemics of malaria. Without trees to hold the topsoil, what had been as tenuously balanced ecology became a strange and deadly combination of tropical disease and desertlike aridity. Conditions were worst on the island of Sicily, where 'within sight of the blue sea the grass . . . is a lifeless brown and the road a powder of white. . . . in many regions it is necessary to go long distances to procure drinking water,' as one early writer on Italian immigration explained.

"The resulting migration, according to an early expert, Robert F. Foerster, 'has been well-nigh expulsion; it has been an exodus in the sense of depopulation.' "

i can endorse all of that except the part about malaria's being a tropical disease. It is a disease of poverty and thrived even in Scandinavia when that part of the world was poor.


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