According to news reports, at least 111 people have died in the wildfires on Maui, an estimated 1,300 are unaccounted for, and authorities anticipate finding many victims who are children. It is a horrific tragedy and our hearts go out to those who are suffering.
Fortunately, many people are donating food, money, and other goods to the survivors, such as clothing, medicine, and shelter. It’s encouraging to see folks voluntarily, almost instinctively, rally to help their neighbors. While their efforts are to be applauded, actions by the state and county governments merit some scrutiny given news reports of what is happening on‐scene.
Bear in mind that government action, whether in Maui or under other circumstances, is often justified by the idea of market failure, a condition in which resources are allocated inefficiently because “individual incentives for rational behavior do not lead to rational outcomes for the group.” One set of market failures is public goods (or services), which the market may under‐produce because potential market actors cannot prevent free riders from benefiting.
An example of a public good is disaster‐response, like in Maui. As Michel Jarraud, Secretary‐General of the World Meteorological Organization, told a 2015 UN Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, disaster early warning systems are “public goods in all countries, without exception, so they must be financed by public investment.”
But as we have seen in Maui, entrusting public goods to the government offers no assurance that they will be provided when needed. Hawaii, for instance, has a decades‐old system of sirens, including 80 on the island of Maui that are tested monthly. But public safety employees reportedly failed to activate the sirens during the Lahaina wildfire.
Other aspects of the government’s response to the wildfire have come in for criticism. Firefighters initially controlled the blaze but reportedly left the scene before confirming it had been fully extinguished. The government apparently provided insufficient water to fight the fire as it expanded. After the fire, police reportedly prevented residents from returning to their homes to look for relatives, pets, and needed possessions.
Maui resident Allisen Medina told the Daily Mail on Aug. 18, “People have been doing their own recovery. One hundred percent not enough is being done so people are doing it themselves. The government relief organizations – they’re not doing anything.”
“We have the right to know what’s going on,” she added. “FEMA came here to help with the recovery [process] but we don’t see them.” https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-12420893/Maui-wildfires-death-toll-update.html
Official distribution of relief supplies has been slow. Private groups have taken over much of the task from government agencies that appear to have been left flat‐footed.
Poor government performance often is blamed on a lack of resources, but that would be a challenging argument to make in Maui’s case. Maui and a couple of adjacent islands are governed by a single county entity that has a 2024 budget of $1.07 billion. With a population of 164,351, Maui County spending this year amounts to over $6500 per resident. Notably, this total does not include public schools that Hawaii funds at the state level. The county mayor’s FY 2024 budget proposal included $60 million for Fire and Public Safety as well as an additional $1.2 million for Emergency Management.
We should be cautious about overgeneralizing from Maui’s case. Government performance varies and there are instances of dedicated public servants coming through for the public in emergencies. Those folks often are real heroes. But what Maui’s case shows is that government intervention does not guarantee the provision of public goods or, indeed, remediation of any form of market failure.
Because humans are imperfect, no institutional arrangement can guarantee a “socially efficient” allocation of resources, even if we could determine what such an outcome should be. Assuming a group of fallible individuals called “the government” will reliably provide public goods could even be counterproductive because it can lead to a sense of complacency.
As the Maui fires illustrate — not unlike Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans — it is wise to take personal precautions or volunteer for neighborhood groups. When disaster strikes, the government may not be there when needed.