Beware of Blaming Government for London Tower Fire

Perhaps safety rules could have saved some residents. But at what cost to others' lives? There's always a trade-off.

Grenfell Tower on Friday.

Photographer: Carl Court/Getty Images

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. All the political will in the world cannot conjure up enough sprinkler systems, and sprinkler-system installers, to instantly transform a nation’s housing stock.

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.

Consider the speed at which many of you drove to work this morning. I’m sure you’re all splendid, careful drivers. Nonetheless, when a vehicle is being piloted at 50 or 60 miles an hour, the margin of error for avoiding an accident is pretty small. To drive a car even at 5 miles per hour is to accept a small risk of killing oneself and others. To drive at 50 miles per hour is to accept a much higher risk of doing so. It’s a calculation: risk versus reward.

In the U.S., tens of thousands of people were killed in auto accidents last year. We could probably eliminate most of those deaths if we simply made sure that no one ever piloted their personal vehicle above some prudent speed -- say, 25 mph -- which would reduce both the likelihood of crashes occurring, and the damage any crashes would do.

Are you willing to make that trade-off? To avert 40,000 deaths a year, all you have to do is move closer to work, take public transportation (where available), or spend a lot more time in the car.

Americans have made that choice: Nope, not worth it. We are manifestly not willing to exchange personal convenience for lower auto fatalities. Nor, as far as I am aware, is anyone anywhere else. Government sets much higher speed limits -- speeds that are still quite deadly! -- and most drivers opt for even deadlier speeds. Every speeding driver knows, at some level, that what they’re doing is dangerous; they simply care more about what the boss will say when they’re late than they do about the increased risk of killing other people. (Pro tip: If you started late, just accept that you’re going to get there late.)

Now, I won’t defend the folks who go 90 in a 50 mph zone.  But in less extreme cases, the broader calculation is probably correct. Auto accidents cost lives. But automobile transport has also saved a lot of lives, by enabling the economic growth that has made us richer and healthier. Slowing traffic down to a crawl would make a lot of that economic activity impossible, or at least, unprofitable. Very few people would like to lower a very small personal risk of death 1  by agreeing to live in the economic equivalent of 1900.

When the cost is as personal, as glaring and obvious, as restricting every car to a snail’s pace, we can see that not all safety trade-offs are worth it. However, when the cost seems to be borne by someone else, we suddenly become safety absolutists: no price is too great to pay.

Unfortunately, “other peoples’ money” has a way of ultimately coming out of our own pockets. If it costs more to build buildings, then rents will rise. People will be forced to live in smaller spaces, perhaps farther away. Some of them, in fact, may be forced to commute by automobile, and then die in a car accident. We don’t see those costs in the same way as we see a fire’s victims; we will never know the name of the guy who was killed in a car accident because he had to live far from work because rents rose because regulators required sprinkler systems. But that is a distinction for public opinion, not for good policy making. Good regulations would take into account the proximate and distant effects.

Back to the case at hand: Maybe sprinkler systems should be required in multifamily dwellings. 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. People can make their own assessments of the risks, and the price they’re willing to pay to allay them, rather than substituting the judgment of some politician or bureaucrat who will not receive the benefit or pay the cost.

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.

It’s possible that by allowing large residential buildings to operate without sprinkler systems, the British government has prevented untold thousands of people from being driven into homelessness by higher housing costs. It’s also possible that a sprinkler system would not have saved lives in that Grenfell inferno, as the fire apparently spread outside the building as well as within it. Hold these possibilities in mind before condemning those who chose to spend government resources on other priorities. Regulatory decisions are never without costs, and sometimes their benefits are invisible.

(Corrects likelihood of auto fatality, in footnote.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Very roughly 1 in 10,000 Americans is killed in an auto accident each year, meaning that even over a very long life, we are all more likely to be killed by something else. Accidents (including car accidents) were the fourth-leading cause of death as of 2014, behind heart disease, cancer and respiratory disease. For people under 50, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death.

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