By Megan McArdle
A few days ago fire swept through Grenfell Tower, a large apartment building in London. It’s not yet known what caused the fire, and we aren’t conclusively sure how it spread so quickly, consuming the entire 24-story building. Nor is it known how many died in the fire; as of Friday, the count is at least 30.
What we do know is that there are ways to help control the spread of fire in apartment buildings, such as sprinkler systems. This has the makings of a scandal for Prime Minister Theresa May’s beleaguered government. Her immigration minister, Brandon Lewis, was formerly the housing minister. He declined to require developers to install sprinklers. The Independent quotes him as telling Parliament in 2014: “We believe that it is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the Government, to market fire sprinkler systems effectively and to encourage their wider installation… The cost of fitting a fire sprinkler system may affect house building—something we want to encourage—so we must wait to see what impact that regulation has.”
People who died in the Grenfell fire might be alive today if regulators had required sprinkler systems. This does not play well for the Tories.
But before we start hanging them in effigy, there are a couple of things we should consider. The first is that, even if the regulation had passed, and required existing developers to retrofit sprinklers into older buildings, Grenfell Tower might not have gotten a sprinkler system before the fire occurred. Regulations are not implemented like instant coffee; they take time to formulate, and further time for businesses to comply.
This, however, is only a quibble; even if Grenfell Tower could not have been saved, there are surely other buildings where fires will soon occur that would benefit from sprinklers. Must we wait for those deaths before we can say that his was a bad calculation? Well, no. But we should wait until we can establish that it was actually a bad calculation.
It may sound heartless to discuss life-saving measures as a calculation. But the fact is that we all make these sorts of calculations every day, about ourselves and others. We just don’t like to admit that we’re doing it.
It’s completely possible that the former housing minister made the wrong call. But his comment indicates he was thinking about the question in the right way—taking seriously the fact that safety regulations come at a cost, which may exceed their benefit. Such calculations have to be made, no matter how horrified the tut-tutting after the fact.
And he is certainly right about one thing: When it comes to many regulations, it is best to leave such calculations of benefit and cost to the market, rather than the government.
Grenfell Tower, of course, was public housing, which changes the calculation somewhat. And yet, even there, trade-offs have to be made. The government spends money on a great number of things, many of which save lives. Every dollar it spends on installing sprinkler systems cannot be spent on the health service, or national defense, or pollution control. Would more lives be saved by those measures or by sprinkler systems in public housing? It’s hard to say.