The Aerogram’s Kishwer Vikaas reads between the lines and reveals (red text is hers) what was really going on in Matthew Yglesias’s head as he wrote his recent blog post, “Different Places Have Different Safety Rules and That’s OK.” The 375-word post penned by Yglesias, the business and economics correspondent for Slate, speaks on the pointlessness of enforcing workplace safety rules in countries like Bangladesh, where a building collapse yesterday killed over 200 garment factory workers. Rescuers continue to pull survivors and bodies out of the rubble. The Slate piece was originally titled, “Foreign Factories Should be More Dangerous.”
It’s very plausible that one reason American workplaces have gotten safer over the decades is that we now tend to outsource a lot of factory-explosion-risk to countries like Bangladesh where 230 poor, brown people just died slowly and painfully in a building collapse. And are continuing to die—crushed by the weight of concrete slabs. This post originally misstated the deaths as arising from a fire rather than a building collapse. Fire? Collapse? Who cares?! I don’t want regulations that would decrease the possibility of either.
This kind of consideration leads Erik Loomis to the conclusion that we need a unified global standard for safety, by which he does not mean that Bangladeshi levels of workplace safety should be implemented in the United States because that would be silly. (We don’t want to die ourselves, obviously.)
I think that’s wrong. Bangladesh may or may not need tougher workplace safety rules, but it’s entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States. Absolutely appropriate, you guys. Here’s why. They’re brown. I mean, let’s think this through. Here’s what we know. We know the Bangladesh garment building had visible cracks in its exterior. We know that Bangladeshi police ordered an evacuation a day before the crash. And we know that factory owners ignored those orders and continued to work 2,000 workers in the eight-story building until it collapsed into a giant heap of concrete and metal. Those are the facts we know. But guess what? That’s just the free market doing what the free market does. Regulating itself.
But we also know this. While having a safe job is good, money is also good. So good it’s worth a couple hundred poor, brown lives here and there. Money is amazing. (Amazing you guys. I just got paid for this article and it took me less than 10 minutes to write.)
Jobs that are unusually dangerous—in the contemporary United States that’s primarily fishing, logging, and trucking pay a premium over other working-class occupations precisely because people are reluctant to risk death or maiming at work. (The total number of fatalities in 2011 for those three professions was 863, btw. Ridiculously high number. Let’s get on fixing that, government.) And in a free society like America it’s good that different people are able to make different choices on the risk–reward spectrum. Primarily, the poor brown people. Mostly Latinos. There are also some good reasons to want to avoid a world of unlimited choice and see this as a sphere in which collective action is appropriate (I’ll gesture at arguments offered in Robert Frank’s The Darwin Economy and Tom Slee’s No One Makes You Shop At Walmart if you’re interested), but that still leaves us with the question of “which collective” should make the collective choice.
Bangladesh is a lot poorer than the United States, and there are very good reasons for Bangladeshi people to make different choices in this regard than Americans. Our needs are just totally different. Citizens of Third World countries only need to survive. They have basic needs—food, water and shelter. I just want to go to Walmart and buy a designer knock-off shirt for $9.99. Is that too much to ask? That’s my need. That’s true whether you’re talking about an individual calculus or a collective calculus. Safety rules that are appropriate for the United States would be unnecessarily immiserating in much poorer, browner Bangladesh. After all, they’re only the third-largest garment manufacturing industry in the world.
Let’s stop trying to hold them back. I mean, honestly. Years and years of colonial rule by the British was enough. If they want to construct shoddy buildings and force under-paid workers to risk life and limb for pennies on the dollars, by all means, let them do it. Who are we to pressure Third World economies? Regulation, schmegulation, I say.
It would be super difficult and limiting to free commerce if we asked that nobody died once in a while. Life is a jungle, as Upton Sinclair once said. You can’t make designer purses without little Jimmy losing a finger or six. Or, you know, both his parents in a fire or a building collapse. It’s just the basic rules of capitalism.
Rules that are appropriate in Bangladesh would be far too flimsy for the richer and more risk-averse United States. Split the difference and you’ll get rules that are appropriate for nobody. The current system of letting different countries have different rules is working fine. I mean, Wednesday’s building collapse was only five months after the fire in Bangladesh killed 117 garment factory workers. That’s totally enough time to generate new workers. American jobs have gotten much safer over the past 20 years, clothes all over have gotten a lot cheaper and Bangladesh has gotten a lot richer. So who cares?
And in conclusion, God bless America.