The fire that consumed Grenfell Tower last Wednesday was an unimaginable sort of horror. Parents threw children out of windows to onlookers below; entire households perished; there are reports that no one from the top three floors survived. The death toll is still increasing. It was almost certainly the worst fire in the United Kingdom in decades.
And it was entirely preventable. For an additional £5,000 (about $6,400) the apartment block could have been refurbished with fire-resistant cladding, rather than the highly flammable materials — banned in the United States and Germany — that were used instead, and that probably transformed a run-of-the-mill high-rise fire into a national tragedy. For £138,000 ($176,000), the entire building could have been retrofitted with sprinklers. Residents had complained for years that the building was unsafe and could not be safely evacuated in the case of a serious fire.
It should not be shocking, then, that Megan McArdle has received a blizzard of rebukes for suggesting that it may be misguided to criticize the London authorities for not installing sprinkler systems. McArdle does not make any conclusive claims about the sprinklers: She acknowledges that the former housing minister who decided not to require developers to install sprinklers may have “made the wrong call.” But, McArdle argues, all expenditures must be justified and balanced against the possible trade-offs: “Every dollar [the government] spends on installing sprinkler systems cannot be spent on the health service, or national device, or pollution control.” And McArdle, as a good libertarian, points out that requiring developers to install sprinklers would increase rents and impose other costs, while leaving the issue unregulated would allow potential tenants themselves to choose whether sprinkler systems and other safety features are worth the cost.
McArdle was savaged on social media for these transparently reasonable sentiments; one particularly asinine Slate article was mockingly titled, “Would I Cross the Street to Spit on You If You Were on Fire? There’s Always a Trade-Off.” People don’t, it turns out, particularly appreciate the notion that safety is a trade-off; they particularly don’t appreciate hearing about the importance of such trade-offs in the aftermath of an unbearable tragedy. At times like these, people want to hear about requisitioning the empty houses of rich people, as Jeremy Corbyn suggested. They want to hear about greedy developers going to prison; they want politicians unseated. People want something to be done, even if that something doesn’t make much sense or will not be particularly helpful.
This, of course, is a problem with people, not a problem with Megan McArdle, whose column appeared obnoxious precisely because it was reasonable and levelheaded at a time when one is not supposed to be either. McArdle is right that there is always a trade-off and that the government should install sprinklers in public housing only if that is the best use of the money. McArdle is right, too, that requiring developers to install sprinklers in every single building would price low-income households out of units they could otherwise have afforded, and would deprive people of the ability to determine for themselves what level of risk they are willing to pay for.
But McArdle’s analysis is incomplete. Any perfect cost-benefit analysis, after all, should take into account not only the fiscal costs and benefits directly implicated in a decision but also the costs and benefits associated with the long-term repercussions of the decision.
In this case, the decision not to install more expensive cladding at Grenfell was a catastrophic failure for the cause of responsible governance. The tragedy has galvanized England and will almost certainly bring in its wake a less compromising, and less proportionate, attitude toward building regulations. A flurry of laws will surely be passed to assuage the horror and the sense of national culpability. Some of these laws may be reasonable and well designed, but it is likely that most will not be. And that is the best-case scenario. London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, has suggested that the tower blocks of the 1960s and ’70s, which provide low-income housing to thousands in a city with a severe housing crisis, may be “systematically torn down.” And if, as seems possible, the Grenfell fire leads to the fall of Theresa May and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, then a libertarian approach to building regulations will ultimately have produced the first genuinely left-wing government the United Kingdom has seen since 1979.
If the authorities had prevented factories in lower Manhattan from locking their employees in, the garment workers would probably never have unionized.
There is very little that is worse for skeptics of big government than a tragedy. Since people demand action after a tragedy, tragedies tend to lead to greater regulation, and regulation is subject to a ratchet effect: Once regulations are passed, they are hard to reverse and the new regulatory climate becomes normal. The political effects of a tragedy can shape society for decades — it was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in lower Manhattan that brought about new regulatory standards in factories, and the Titanic changed maritime safety forever.
It stands to reason, then, that conservatives and libertarians have an interest in promoting modest, cheap, and popular safety rules and regulations. If the United Kingdom had banned the flammable cladding used in Grenfell, as America and Germany had, no one would be talking today about tearing down low-income housing across London, and the cost would be only a few thousand pounds more per development. If the authorities had prevented factories in lower Manhattan from locking their employees in, the garment workers would probably never have unionized. If the Titanic had been forced by law to carry enough lifeboats, maritime regulations would probably be far simpler today.
Libertarians in particular will find these preventive regulations difficult to stomach. But most of the world is not libertarian — certainly, not after a trauma of this magnitude — and so, difficult to stomach though they may be, safety rules and regulations, carefully chosen and managed, are a worthwhile investment in a slightly more libertarian future.
— Max Bloom is an editorial intern at National Review.