What’s the difference between an accident and an outrage? The fire at Grenfell Towers, London, that killed at least 80 people—a definitive total won’t be known for months according to the authorities—resulted from a series of decisions made by those in charge of construction. Almost certainly, had they made different choices, most if not all of the deaths could have been avoided. Furthermore, common sense regulations should have taken those choices out of their hands, and only safe, fire-resistant materials should have been authorized. There is plenty of blame to go around, but the underlying problem was an ideological hostility to regulation.
The story behind the fire is a long and complicated one. This New York Times article is a good starting point. For even more details you can go to Wikipedia. But the guts of it is this: One tenant owned a crappy fridge: a Hotpoint model FF175BP that was long known to be problematic and which the manufacturer discontinued in 2009. The fridge’s back was plastic, not metal. The London Fire Brigade has been lobbying for years on this matter to no avail, and is so strongly opposed to these plastic-backed refrigerators that they have put up videos on their website of fridges engulfed in flames.
The faulty fridge is bad enough, but the bigger problem involves the paneling or cladding, an outside layer of materials placed on the building’s facade during a reconstruction done over the last few years. The cladding chosen here included some combustible material. How much would it have cost to use cladding that wasn’t combustible? £5,000. In U.S. dollars, that’s about $6,500. And that’s for the whole building, which you can see from the photo above is not a small one.
It’s not like British regulators were unaware of the problem. The use of this material is against the law in Germany, and in the U.S. as well—although given Donald Trump’s recent proclamation that any new regulation must be accompanied by getting rid of two existing ones, who knows what sensible, safety-minded rules will be jettisoned? Trump has opined, without providing specific evidence, that it has become “virtually impossible to expand your existing business because of regulations.” If he gets his way, the financial industry, for example, could go right back to the kind of Wild West environment that brought our economy to its knees in 2008.
What this president and other like-minded conservatives refuse to see is that the kind of mindless deregulation they propose leads to businesses racing to the bottom by cutting corners. They have no choice because of the competitive nature of capitalism today, in which short-term profits are too often valued above everything else. If your competitor can do it cheaper, you either figure out a way to cut costs or go out of business. And there’s always someone in every sector of the economy who lacks enough moral sense to avoid crossing the line, who is willing to put people in danger. It only takes one such unscrupulous businessperson to set the standard for countless competitors. Or, to put in simpler terms: there’s always an asshole out there who’ll ruin things for everyone else.
There is only one answer: tough, smart regulations that protect not only consumers but businesses who don’t want to sink to the lowest common denominator in order to survive. Regulations hold all businesses to a reasonable standard so that the honest, moral ones are empowered to do the right thing without sacrificing their own interests. Regulations are there to stop the assholes.
British conservatives—who have been in charge since 2010—have made deregulation a central theme in their approach to governing:
Under Conservative efforts since 2010 to reduce the national budget and the national debt, state funding was reduced or frozen for many parts of the government, including local councils. Deregulation also meant outsourcing responsibility for fire inspections to owners and builders, instead of civil servants. Private companies were required to use “authorized inspectors” for fire safety, but... they worked for builders and developers, and “there was a classic conflict of interest.”
Deregulation is all about freedom, you see. At least that’s what conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic argue. Guardian columnist George Monbiot put that claim of freedom in its proper context:
The freedom they celebrate is highly selective: in many cases it means the freedom of the rich to exploit the poor, of corporations to exploit their workers, landlords to exploit their tenants and industry of all kinds to use the planet as its dustbin. As RH Tawney remarked, “Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows.”
British Conservatives have been touting what—sounding a lot like the current occupant of the White House—they call a “bonfire of regulations.” I know you’re waiting for a cheeky reply, and Jonathan Freedland, also of the Guardian, provided it: “Well, they got their bonfire all right.”
The inferno at Grenfell Towers was no arson, but there are without question people who must be held morally and legally responsible. Underlying the use of unsafe materials that allowed a small fire to spread like, well, wildfire, throughout an entire 24-story building was a dangerous ideology that sees even sensible regulation as nothing more than an obstacle to profit. Putting aside the lack of morality, the lawsuits from this fire will almost certainly make the decision to use and sell this type of combustible materials a highly unprofitable one. Conservatives in the U.K. are just as susceptible to this kind of thinking as they are in the U.S. When will they ever learn?