Gregory Paul: "More on Why Libertarian Theory is a Good Way to Make a Big, Big Mess"
Here we go again.
Yet another industrial accident lets us know what a libertarian society is like.
As you may recall, an explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant less than a year ago showed
what happens when the zoning regulations that libertarians oppose in principle are
so slack that they don’t prevent industrial facilities from being too damn obtusely
close to residential areas.
Now we have a chemical leak in West Virginia pretty much shutting down normal life
and business in an entire city for two specific reasons. First being inadequate regulations and/or enforcement of the same allowed a many decades old tank go uninspected by a government safety official for over two decades. Secondly, the facility was located shortly upstream of the main river-based water source for a few hundred thousand people. Oops.
Strict libertarian theory demands that all government regulations be dropped because
they are unnecessary. The thinking is that of course a company handling say chemicals
will bend over backwards to operate as safely as humanly possible because they will not
want to incur the costs of lost materials, etc., and dealing with the expenditures of the
resulting law suits by aggrieved parties and so forth.
Seriously, they really think this.
Much of libertarian theory is fiction. Which is why libertarians are big on basing their
beliefs on works of fiction. Most famously on Ayn Rand’s notorious piece of very bad
writing, Atlas Shrugged.
In AS free market loving capitalists -- excuse me job creators -- only desire to invest their
wealth in improved rail service if only the perfidious unions and pernicious government
would get out of their enlightened self-interested way. This is a book set in the late 50s
when private enterprise was doing everything it could to get out of passenger rail that
was proving unable to compete with jet liners, or autos and buses on freeways. The
economically clueless Rand could not even get that basic reality right rendering Rand’s use of railroads as an exemplar of private safety via self-interest the cynical joke that it is the railroad industry itself. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s when the USA was essentially libertarian the powerful railroad interests were at liberty to run their concerns as best served their profit margins. The result was disaster. Lots and lots and lots of disasters. Locomotives were chronically running into one another; trains were constantly derailing from the collisions or bad tracks; bridges were collapsing all over the place. On occasion a bad rail would get bent upward and slice up through the
thin bottom of the cheaply built passenger cars like a great scythe.
Let’s say you are the engineer in 1903 and see that the train must stop immediately lest
catastrophe ensue. You apply the brakes, right? No. To stop, the trainmen had to climb on top of the cars and turn brake wheels. Good luck with that.
It took government regulations driven by public outrage and unionization to make rail travel safe between the world wars.
Left unregulated, many business operators cut safety corners because doing so saves
money at least in the short term. And human minds are geared to put priority on the
short over the long term. In the long-term, corporations resort to legal maneuvers to
evade the consequences of bad short-term thinking. The libertarian leaning Freedom
Industries whose tank leaked are now filing for bankruptcy in a manner intended to keep
the operation in the owners hands, while dodging financial responsibilities (to be fair the
company had apparently just acquired the facility).
Corporations exploit states like West Virginal and Texas to test how far they can go in getting away with minimal regulations. The most powerful nation on Earth should not be running wacky Randian experiments. Had the WV government paid proper attention to its
regulatory responsibilities, the chemical tank would have been inspected and repaired.
That way hundreds of thousands would not have had to go without bathes or showers for
a week; private businesses would not have been shut down; and citizens would not have
to wonder about the potential health consequences (like the great majority of the tens of thousands of industrial chemicals in use, the coal cleaner 4-methylcyclohexane methanol has never been tested for its effects upon people). Often the best friend of businesses is sound government regulation.