The death and destruction in Haiti has fixated the world on this poor country. Aid is pledged from private and public sources in the U.S. and from many other nations.

The American people, the most generous people on the planet, are pouring forth a torrent of aid.

But beyond burying the dead, treating the injured and comforting the grieving, indeed, beyond the immediate food, water and shelter needs of the survivors, is the longer term question: Independent since 1804, why is Haiti still so poor, so corrupt, so desperate – and so vulnerable to disaster?

Putting aside answers like Pat Robertson’s “the Haitians made a pact with the devil” and Danny Glover’s “the earth retaliated for the failure of the Copenhagen Conference,” why did so many Haitians have to suffer now when another 7.0 earthquake centered in the San Francisco Bay during the World Series in 1989 killed just 63 people?

The standard answer is that Haiti is poor. That’s pretty obvious. Per capita GDP is less than $1,300 a year.

The real question is: Why is Haiti so poor? Many other small independent countries in the area have prospered. Next-door neighbor Dominican Republic is a thriving democracy with a growing economy generating about $8,600 per person per year.

Barbados and the Bahamas are small island countries nearby with primarily black populations that enjoy many times the per capita income of Haiti. Barbados boasts a thriving democracy and economy – with its own stock market – and per capita GDP of about $19,000 per year. The Bahamas do even better with per capita GDP of about $28,000.

Some point out that these successful countries were all ex-colonies of Britain, while Haiti had the misfortune to be colonized by France. It could be something to that – but the influence of colonization is a distant and receding memory. There must be other, more recent, reasons for the wide disparity of experience between these nations.

Anti-American leftists answer the question by blaming America first, noting that for most of the 20th century, Haiti was either occupied by American troops or oppressed by American supported dictators.

But the U.S. also supported democratic transitions in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which occupies the other half of the Island of Hispaniola. In the Dominican Republic, democracy has taken hold, with the recent elections resulting in a victory for the opposition party. In Haiti, elections resulted in just another set of kleptocratic thugs in office, in turn ejected by a military coup.

Why is one-half of the island desperate and destitute, the other half prospering?

Why is Calcutta, with a large population crammed into a small area and no natural resources, the poorest city on Earth while Hong Kong, with a large population crammed into a small area and no natural resources, the richest city on Earth?

The politically incorrect answer is liberty. The freedom for an individual to start a business, have contracts and property rights enforced in a (non-corrupt) court and access to credit is as important to the development of a country as the freedom to speak and communicate freely and elect a representative government.

In fact, the Chinese economic Great Leap Forward was started the moment the Chinese communists realized that communism doesn’t work. While the Chinese dictatorship continues, the freedom to get rich and keep the fruits of your labor has generated an economic boom that is transforming the world.

More than 100 years of treating the Haitians like children and doling out welfare has made Haiti look more like Detroit than Barbados.

The Marshall Plan provided money and a blueprint for recovery for World War II ravaged Europe. The blueprint insisted on freedom in politics and in the economy. The victorious U.S. exported to Europe the very secret of how we won the war – democracy and capitalism.

It’s time for a “Marshall Plan” for Haiti. Rebuild a functioning democracy backed by an infrastructure of civil works (sewer, water, schools and roads), and education, and inspire a parallel development of private property (farms, businesses, industries) backed by civil courts enforcing the rule of law.

Why should we – the U.S. – go to this trouble and expense? The simple truth is we owe Haiti. The slave rebellion there defeated Napoleon’s army to win independence more than 200 years ago. This defeat coupled with the military situation in Europe led Napoleon to do what he said he would never do – let the Americans buy Louisiana. The French gave up their dreams of a French North American Empire, and we got what became 14 states (more than 800,000 square miles) for $200 million in today’s money. Not bad.

Haiti doesn’t deserve welfare dependency any more than Detroit does. While today Haitians need fish to eat – tomorrow what will begin the process of prosperity is giving the Haitians a fishing pole and a system that will allow the ambitious among them to buy boats and set up fish markets.

In other words, for the immediate future, let’s “spread the wealth around,” but for the long-term prosperity of Haiti, let’s spread the secret of wealth making.

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