I wrote before, several times (cf "The Bureaucratic Mind
and Regulating the Law Abiding
", "Who Is Safer?
", "Worker Safety
") that regulatory practices are often pointless, or more often harmful, as they do nothing but either tell people to follow safety practices they already do, or else enforce showy actions that give the appearance of improving safety but actually distract from real safety measures. (As we will see in some examples, shortly.) It is not a difficult argument to make, though oddly one I hear very rarely. Far more often, the argument is made that, while they may be pointless, or stress appearance over substance, it is better to have regulations than leave people to their own devices. (""Better Safe Than Sorry" Usually Leaves Us Even More Sorry, And Much Less Safe
") I have argued against such positions many times, but usually with little support. So I was quite interested to find a post, which, while not exactly supporting my position, seems to raise some of the same points. This one comes from a discussion of Australian aviation safety regulations
, and says a few things that should be self-evident, but which, strangely, are often completely overlooked, even by supposed conservatives, when they discuss regulation:
The safety record for this country... for what its worth.
"Excellent and unique" according to CASA.
"Ordinary" by world stats by more objective reseachers.
Why do we have a "good" record...notwithstanding with some unfortunate blemishes recently.
IMHO its because 99.99999% of aviators try their very best to stay
alive, and try not to do anything knowingly unsafe or plain dumb.
Therefore, those that do.. become a statistic and into the Safety Digest.
You could bury most of CASA and the regs underground and the result would be the same.
Above ground most engineers will carefully maintain things, and most
pilots will 'professionally' fly things....not because of CASA, but to
keep their respective ar$es intact. Its the survival thing.
Yes, the statement is common sense, and it really doesn't say much, but it does make one point, one which seems to escape many who argue for safety regulations, and that is the common sense fact that people have a selfish interest in safety, and even without regulation will act to protect themselves. It sounds like common sense, but sadly, when it comes to discussing safety regulations, many on the right and left seem to forget this truth, and end up supporting big government as a result.
Let us start with a very simple question, hopefully one for which every single reader will provide the same answer:
When you bake cookies, why do you use an oven mitt?
I hope that every single reader said "So I won't get burned" or something tot hat effect. In fact, I not only hope that was the answer, but I have trouble imagining any other answer even being possible. I suppose a few might want to be difficult and could try to say "because mom did" or "I like how they look", but I don't think they would be taken very seriously. And I am almost certain no one would say "Because of OSHA regulations."
However, if you were a commercial baker, that would be the answer, if not for the use of oven mitts, certainly for any number of equally common sense measures. Things that you do without thinking at home, because they keep you safe, or prevent very obvious risks, are repeatedly mandated by the state1
when it comes to business.
Which brings me to the first argument against government safety mandates, the fact that individuals will take steps to ensure their own safety without prompting, and, when it comes to ensuring their own safety, will likely make better cost-benefit assessments than any "one size fits all" government regulation. It seems self evident, but since some seem to fail to grasp this simple fact, let me spell it out. People do not want to be injured. However, people also recognize some degree of risk is inevitable. Thus, they weigh the amount of risk they are willing to accept against the costs -- both in terms of money and inconvenience -- and decide what is the best course for them. On the other hand, the state, thinking in the abstract, exists to ensure "safety" as a vague notion. For the most part, regulators do not bear the costs or inconveniences of their regulations2
, and so, for the most part, they tend to impose excessive safety regulations, far more than individuals would choose for themselves, as they do not bear the costs of safety rules, but they could be blamed should there be too many injuries or accidents in the industry they oversee. And even when they do not go to extremes, they still tend to regulate with a broad brush, imposing rules across the boards, or at the most regulating by industry, and as a result, they cannot consider variations between firms, look at differing circumstances, consider individual risk tolerances, and the like, and so they will inevitable produce more poor fits than good ones, if they ever achieve the latter at all.
Of course, most often these measures are not sold as protecting people from themselves, though that has been argued at times, instead they are proposed as a means to protect employees from the evil actions of greedy employers who ignore safety to save a few dollars. And, to be fair, if the questions were entirely as postulated, that employees would work regardless of safety measures, and there were no cost to ignoring safety for employees, then it would make sense to sacrifice worker safety to save money. However, the situation postulated by those arguing for such measures not only has never existed, but, cannot exist. Even if we imagine a totalitarian state that could force workers to labor, there would still be the costs of ignoring worker safety, which means, in the real world, circumstances are not such that employers may simply ignore safety.
The first problem, and the most obvious, is the simple fact that employees work voluntarily. This fact, so often ignored by those determined to protect workers, is the nail in the coffin of most such supposedly pro-labor laws3
. Workers, unlike the mindless automata of the theory, actually consider the environment in which they will work, the record of the company, the opinions of those who have worked there, and, if they make a mistake and find themselves employed in substandard conditions, they leave and take a different job. If you doubt this, think back tot he last time you looked for a job. Did you just jump at the first job offered? Did you randomly apply to every job listing? Or did you consider which job seemed best, in terms of pay, safety, working conditions and host of other considerations? And if you did so, why would you imagine the rest of humanity does not take similar factors into account? Are the masses so much inferior to you4
But even if workers were unable to defend themselves, unable to select jobs in their own iterest5
, there are still other reasons for employers to take safety into consideration6
. Most notably because employees rise in value the longer they are employed. In some part this is due tot he acquisition of job skills, as well as "institutional memories", that is knowledge of how things work within an organization that can only be acquired through experience. But there is more to it than that. In addition, as an employee is employed for longer times, his superiors come to know him, know his work habits, know how reliable he is, know what can be asked of him and hat cannot. With new employees there is no such store of knowledge, and that makes new employees risky, and thus less valuable. When handing out assignments, it is easy to determine which long-term employee can or cannot be asked to perform a given task, not so with newly hired men. And so, to retain these valuable assets, employers would be wiling to invest in their safety. It may not be valuable enough for him to enact every safety rule the government would compel, but it certainly is in his interest to spend as much on safety as he would lose should these employees be injured or killed.
In addition to the value of existing workers, there is the cost of new workers. We have already mentioned the unpredictability, and the need for them to acquire job skills and knowledge of the organization, but that is not all. First, when an employee is injured, time is lost on a given project, not only during the injury, but afterward until that employee can be replaced. There is then the cost of actual hiring, the cost of advertising a position or engaging a staffing service, the cost of confirming references and job history, perhaps of testing various skills, of interviewing, of time lost for managers who must conduct such interviews, and, inevitably, the loss inherent in those who are hired and later prove a poor fit and must be let go7
Those who argue against such assumptions tend to point to the industrial revolution, to child labor and poor safety standards, but such arguments are anachronistic in the extreme8
. First, because in general safety standards were lower, and more risk was accepted all around. Second, it ignores the generally more impoverished conditions of the time, with lower profits and safety measures more costly, making it much more costly to introduce any safety measures. Finally, in many cases, but especially in the case of child labor, it often overlooks the even worse alternatives, which made factory work, though dangerous by today's standards, seem appealing. There are other issues as well,as there usually are when trying to apply modern thought to past eras, but for now that should be enough.
The only other serious counter argument offered are the illegal sweat shops run using illegal immigrants. However, the very description points out why they do not follow the pattern of all other business. Sweat shops employ illegal labor and are themselves illegal. As such, they expect to be shut down regularly, and also expect a high turnover of labor. That being the case, there is no expectation of developing labor to any degree, either in acquiring skills, or even in developing a better knowledge of one's employees. Given those circumstances,there is no financial interest in maintaining worker well being. Thus, the lack of safety regulation is not due to being beyond the reach of government regulators, but because illegal businesses experience different incentives than legitimate firms. Just as drug dealers turn to violence through being cut off from legal means of settling contractual disputes8
, the transient nature of illegal alien employees tend to discourage pressures that woudl exist in legitimate firms.
I had intended to go on, to describe how such laws were not just pointless, but also costly and damaging. The cost should, to a degree, be obvious. Any government regulation entails overhead, the cost of bureaucrats, of legislation, of inspection, of prosecutions, of false charges, of money spent on compliance measures which do not improve safety9
, reporting costs and so on. But there are far greater costs as well. However, as I am aware I tend to write at too great a length, I have decided to split this in two. I will end here, having shown the pointlessness of safety regulations, and will, very soon, follow up with a description of the costs and other harms done by such laws10
1. For the moment we will ignore pointless, or overly cautious, rules, such as the "three chamber sink" rules of which I have been so critical (eg. I once worked a bar which served only bottled wine, canned juice and soda, and beer and liquor in disposable plastic cups, yet we had to have a three chamber sink for health reasons, as well as sterilization tablets so we could wash dishes we did not use -- see also "The "Right To Sue" As Our Only Right
" and "Real Life and Regulation
"), and assume for this argument that all safety regulations actually mandate useful actions, which are neither overly cautious nor ineffective.
2. Sometimes the regulatory agencies become so burdensome that the industry will expend time, money and political capital to have the regulators removed. Or, in the worst case, the industry as a whole will begin to fail (as happened, unrelated to safety, when the unions were given too much power in the auto industry). In either case, the regulators will, for a time, be forced to err in the opposite direction. However, as discussed in "Fear Driven Enterprises
Bureaucratic Management in Government Enterprises
" and "Grow or Die, The Inevitable Expansion of Everything
", the pressure is always toward more intervention.
3. Similar considerations make minimum wage laws pointless as well. See "There Ought To Be a Law
", "Fairness and the Free Market
" and "A New Look At Intervention
4. This is one of the great failings of liberal theories. For them to make sense, one must imagine that he is superior to the bulk of humanity, as otherwise there is no easy way to explain that you and I behave rationally, while we imagine most people do not. It is on the basis of such arrogant assumptions that most liberal theories rest. See "The Weakest Gun Control Argument
People As Stupid
", "Arrogance and Gun Control
", "The Path of Least Resistance
" and "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences
5. Realistically, excluding a totalitarian state which can compel labor, it is hard to think of a circumstance where this would be true. Perhaps in an economy in a state of collapse due to hyperinflation. But, in general, it is unlikely that circumstances would ever be such, in a normal, relatively healthy economy, that individuals would be unable to choose between jobs. And the possibility of collusion between employers to limit safety is unlikely, for the same reasons such collusions fails in minimum wage arguments, if they are so greedy, then one or more will break the agreement to reap massive rewards.
6. Pro-labor theories tend to be populated with caricature Snidely Whiplash types, so I won't even mention that many employees, being ordinary humans, have a compassionate interest in the safety of their fellow man, including their employees. It is a valid consideration, but as most liberals, and even some conservatives, will dismiss such a possibility, I will not bother with this argument. It doesn't matter, in any case, as there are more than enough economic arguments.
7. On an unrelated note, many of these costs are part of the explanation for "gender disparity". Women, whether they choose to do so or not, are capable of bearing children, and many leave either temporarily or permanently when doing so. As a result, all of these costs are potentially incurred one or more times for every woman hired. And there is no way to avoid them, as all our "reproductive rights" would prevent any firm from including penalties in a contract for taking maternity leave. Thus, it is inevitable women and men will find their salaries somewhat different, no matter how much it troubles economists and womens' studies majors.
8. See "Mistaken Perceptions of the Industrial Age
" and "Child
and the Industrial Revolution
9. By this I mean actions which are required by law, such as providing an over abundance of material safety sheets, or filing proper paperwork, which do not, in themselves improve safety. They are, admittedly, a necessary part of a bureaucratic safety regime, and so are not "waste" per se. However, I would argue that, given a non-bureaucratic safety regime can produce the same or better results, while avoiding such overhead, they are additional costs. (This is the opposite of arguments offered concerning the supposed "waste" of the free market. See "Cutting
Examples of "Inefficiency" in Capitalism
" and "Third Best Economy
10. As mentioned before, I discuss some of the costs in "Who Is Safer?
" and "Worker Safety