Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Beyond Doubt

A Case of State Failure

The stark, blackened image of Grenfell Tower is a picture more powerful than a thousand words.  But what does the picture tell us?  What's the message?  The reflexive Left has lost no time telling us its version of what Grenfell Tower represents.  It's greed.  It's capitalist rapacity.  It's profit ahead of people.  An example of the trope is provided by Workers World:
Capitalist greed is the root cause of the raging inferno that killed at least 79 residents of Grenfell Tower in London on June 14 and left hundreds homeless. It began and spread through unsafe building materials that even some capitalist countries have barred from use.

The British government is guilty of neglect and prioritizing cost-cutting above all in maintaining and renovating the high-rise building.  Of lesser — or no — importance to the British rulers was ensuring safe public housing for the multinational working-class and poor families, including many immigrants, who lived there.
Capitalist greed the root cause, eh?  As they say, never let the facts get in the way of a sensationalist story.  But similar views have been cascading down the mountain side from more "respectable" ideological positions.  The real blame for Grenfell Tower lies not with capitalist greed, but neoliberalism, whatever that might be conjured to be.
 Apparently it's got something to do with successive governments in the UK eschewing rules and regulations controlling buildings and construction.
With its dogmatic adherence to neoliberal economic ideology since the 1980s, the UK has long been at the forefront of efforts in the Western world to scale back the state and allow market forces to operate with increasing amounts of freedom.  From systematically privatising public housing and the National Health Service, to loosening financial regulations and allowing banks to engage in their particular brand of casino capitalism, both Conservative and Labour governments in the UK have bought in to and endorsed the idea that markets are the best guarantors of economic efficiency and the public good.

It is in this context that there has been a marked reluctance to introduce new regulations in areas such as public safety, with the idea simply being that such measures would impede the operation of the market and act as a disincentive to investment and economic activity.  [Hassan Javid, The Nation]
Once again, for the ideologues, the facts must never be allowed to impede a good story.  

Philip Booth and Alberto Mingardi remove the ideological blinkers:
Grenfell Tower was a block built by public bodies and ultimately controlled by a public body. Given that the public body (the council) had spent nearly £10 million on refurbishing the building, blaming austerity for the fire doesn’t make much sense. We don’t know the combination of factors that led to the fire, but if the cause were the cladding, another £5,000 would have prevented the fire. This has nothing to do with austerity, it is a simple matter of bad choices by an arm of government.

Indeed, the problem of government failure runs deeper. Apparently, the tenants had complained for a long time about various aspects of the tower’s management. This should not surprise us. The ills of public housing are quite familiar, with councils routinely ignoring tenants’ wishes, and with awful outcomes. Liverpool’s mid-rise Netherley development in the 1950s and 1960s was not unusual in this respect. Within just ten years of its completion, the council began to clear families out before its ultimate demolition.

As for the charge that deregulation led to the Grenfell tragedy, it is hardly better grounded. Many aspects of fire regulations have been reviewed, but, despite warnings, the government did not review the particular regulations relating to the cladding used on Grenfell Tower. No impartial observer could reasonably accuse the previous two governments of deregulating the economy. And, indeed, flats have been clad in the first place because government has encouraged councils to do so.

This was a block of flats owned by local government, managed by an organization that was a creature of regulation passed by a Labour government in the early 2000s. Indeed, the whole concept of high-rise living was part of a socialist utopia, a world in which private properties with gardens were to be minimized and collective living in the sky was to flourish.

We are glad this utopia was resisted by many. But we also believe it’s impossible to draw any general political conclusions from this. Sadly, apartments run by private landlords, privately owned houses, and public housing will all occasionally meet with the tragedy of fire. But we can say for certain that, as Theresa May (who is no stranger to blaming businesses when things go wrong) said, this particular example was one of “state failure.”  [National Review Online]
Philip Booth is a professor of finance, public policy, and ethics at St. Mary’s University, London, and a senior academic fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs. Alberto Mingardi is the director general of Istituto Bruno Leoni, a Milan-based think tank, and an adjunct fellow of the Cato Institute in Washington. D.C.

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