Fire is usually a sign that the free marketplace has failed; the lethality of fire spurred developed countries to introduce codes and regulations to prevent it. That’s why two recent fire disasters in the West—one in California last year that killed 36 people and one in London this week that killed many more than the 30 people now identified— are so shocking and unacceptable.
In an earlier industrial age, indifference to human life—as well as plain ignorance about basic safety provisions—caused terrible suffering. In 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in downtown Manhattan killed 146 people. The factory’s owners thought that it was economical and convenient to keep workers locked inside. The building, which still stands, was fireproof; the people were not.
Keeping people safe from fire at their workplaces and in their homes was one of the modern West’s first truly reformist causes. After the Shirtwaist fire, New York State enacted new laws requiring emergency exits and fire extinguishers, as well as better building materials. Much of the country and the developed world followed.
Though the West knows how to prevent fire today, it doesn’t always take the necessary steps, particularly in the Third World countries that now produce much of what it consumes. One hundred and one years after the Triangle tragedy, in 2012, the Tazreen Fashion fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh killed at least 117 people. The factory’s owners, who supplied Western clothing chains, thought it economical to skimp on emergency exits. Young women and girls in Bangladesh did not have what we take for granted: well-enforced laws to govern capitalism’s worst impulses.
But the West, too, fails all too frequently at home. Usually, this failure is due not to inadequate laws, but to poor enforcement. In 1990, Julio Gonzalez, angry at his ex-girlfriend, torched the Happy Land nightclub in the Bronx, killing 87. It was the worst New York fire since the Triangle blaze, though it was code enforcement that led to the disaster: the nightclub, from which there was no way people could escape in an emergency, was already in violation before the fire, and inspectors had ordered it shut down nearly two years earlier. The city, back then, turned a blind eye to music and dance clubs favored by its growing immigrant community. Thirteen years later, 100 people died in another nightclub fire, in Rhode Island, this one set off by fireworks and foam. Again, the fire was the result of lax enforcement. The club was supposed to have sprinklers, and state law prohibited indoor fireworks.
Last winter, failure to enforce decades-old policies resulted in the death of 36 people in Oakland. The owner of Ghost Ship, an artists’ collective, allegedly had converted the warehouse he leased into illegal apartments and a club; he faces trial for manslaughter. Here, too, local officials knew about the hazard and did nothing about it. Since the fire, art-scene folk around the country have lamented the subsequent enforcement of fire codes, with inspectors shutting down hip spaces from Baltimore to Denver to prevent similar disasters. Complying with boring old regulations is not free-spirited, but neither is being trapped in smoke.
The London fire early last Wednesday morning, though, may be different. In this case, if early reports are correct, the law, rather than enforcement of the law, was inadequate. Several news reports have indicated that Britain allows building owners, whether public or private, to clad high-rise apartment buildings, such as the 24-story Grenfell tower, in flammable synthetic material, not all that dissimilar to the foam that helped spread fire through the Rhode Island nightclub.
This cladding material is banned for high-rise use in the U.S. and Germany, and for an obvious reason: it appears that the cladding accelerated the fire and prevented egress from a 1970s-era building with just one staircase. Poor egress appears to be another failure of law: one safety expert said that his non-British colleagues were “staggered” to learn that Britain doesn’t require more exits from high-rises. The death toll from the Grenfell fire is still climbing; better laws likely could have prevented dozens of deaths.
Many regulations are just plain silly. New York, for example, prohibits dancing in bars that don’t have a cabaret license. Liz Hurley said that she supported Brexit because of European rules on light bulbs. But dumb regulations don’t discredit the need for regulation. The fact that a regulation costs money isn’t an automatic argument against it; building extra stairwells costs money, but the cost is worth the benefit. In this case, Britain failed at a core function of government: protecting vulnerable people.
Without a robust rule of law, the West will see a further erosion of support for capitalist institutions and for capitalism itself. By late last week, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn proposed requisitioning wealthy foreign investors’ London homes for use by families made homeless by the Grenfell fire. Expropriation of property is surely a sign that a government has failed—but it is the result, not the cause, of multiple previous failures.
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