I was in my office on the 17th floor when I felt the building start to sway. I wasn’t a happy camper.
Quickly jumping on Twitter I saw I was not alone, and within a minute or two I knew that today’s earthquake was up and down the east coast. Then I waited for the damage reports. The injured. The dead. The collapsed buildings. I wasn’t alone. Mayor Bloomberg put out a statement that read, in part, “our thoughts in New York are with those who were more directly affected by this natural disaster.”
A 5.8 quake may not be too much of a big deal if you live in a quake zone and your buildings are designed for it, but we aren’t known for moving the earth in such fashion. And so we waited for the information to come in.
And you know what? Nothing happened. There was no disaster.
Why? I’ll tell you. We have pretty good building codes and labor laws. We have people that enforce them. That’s our tax dollars at work, and working properly.
And I mention labor laws because they go hand in hand with building codes. One is designed for building safety and the other for worker safety. If builders think they can skimp on one if the laws are lax, then they probably think they can skimp on others. But they can’t. Skimping ain’t allowed.
Each year I go to Albany to lobby the legislature and each year our labor laws are fought against tooth and nail by construction companies looking to skimp on the safety of our laborers. We have strict liability here in New York if a company doesn’t provide proper safety to the workers and the workers are hurt. And we therefore have few accidents relative to the size of the city. If it ain’t broke, goes the old saying, don’t fix it.
Today we saw government work. And we saw our safety laws work. In a day and age when screaming about slashing the budgets and laws is a popular topic, it’s something to think about.
The counter-argument I hear from libertarians with respect to building codes is that such codes are irrelevant. In rich countries, the argument goes, people will demand well built structures regardless of building codes, and builders will construct solid buildings out of fear of reputation loss. Building codes in poor countries will be circumvented, and therefore are also irrelevant. The argument is usually accompanied by examples of building inspectors in America taking bribes, which apparently is somehow meant to support the argument, so long as you don’t actually think too hard about it.
This is obvious nonsense, of course. It confirms the observation that libertarians are remarkably clueless about how real people in the real world operate. (So, incidentally, are Marxists. The personality types of the two groups are, in my experience, the same, for all the differences in resulting dogma. Marxism is unfashionable nowadays, so people prone to such thinking tend to be libertarians instead.)
It also falls into the larger set of arguments that, since government is incapable of doing anything right, anything which appears to be an example of the government getting it right is merely illusory. My favorite example is a guy who argued that the clear air and water acts from the ’70s had nothing to do with air and water getting clearer, or if they did it was to impede the progress toward cleaner air and water that the free market was inexorably accomplishing despite government regulation. The details of how this worked were never made clear.
What a concise argument for regulation and safety laws.
In the UK the media are always telling us we live in a nanny state where health & safety laws are out of control. And it is popular in the workplace to poo poo these rules.
But they do save lives!