One of the most transparently self-serving assumptions often made by laissez-faire advocates is that private charity can do a better job than government of providing assistance to the less fortunate members of society, and that such charity will be unleashed if only government would get out of the way. I offer the following example of what really tends to happen, from the first chapter of Laurie Garrett’s Betrayal of Trust where she describes a 1994 plague outbreak.

What drew industry to Surat was precisely the weakness of its government, lack of health and pollution enforcement, eager unskilled labor force, and a virtual tax-free environment.

Sounds pretty much like what some would call perfect conditions for success, doesn’t it? Not according to the very next paragraph.

“Perhaps the greatest irony,” wrote the conservative Business Standard of Bombay, “is that the epidemic has hit one of the economically most active areas of the country in a state which is considered to be the most business friendly…What is more, the Gujarat government has gone out of its way to be more accommodating to business than most and has in turn been able to reap the benefits of a rapid industrialization which is not the case with the rest of the country. But somehow down the line, the need for good municipal services was forgotten. Businessmen who were busy making money cared little about minimum civic services or the basic quality of life that says no filth, mosquitoes, flies, fleas, and rats. And when the epidemic hit, they were the first to pack their Maruti 1000s and run. India today has clearly got its priorities wrong.”

Now here’s the kicker.

Professor Parmar was also concerned about the apparent oddities in Surat’s epidemic And he told Shah that without help from the city’s 137 private physicians, “This will spread like wildfire. It’s a Black Death.”

The civil doctors, fully supported by the Gujarat State Minister of Health Subash Shelad, did their level best to calmly spread word of the apparent plague outbreak, hoping to solicit assistance from the city’s private physicians.

They were totally unprepared for what followed.

The private doctors panicked. Eighty percent of them fled the sity, closing their clinics and hospitals and abandoning their patients.

Shocking, huh? Did you miss the part where that’s 137 physicians for a city of 1.6 million? Did you miss the part where this happened in India because employing people there is cheaper than complying with labor and health standards in the countries that consume most of what the people of Surat manufacture? So much for the free market solving all problems. The city was underserved and overburdened to start with, and at the first sign of trouble those altruistic laissez-faire types did what they always do best: they left the mess they’d helped create behind them and ran like hell to find greener pastures.