Fire is usually a sign that the free marketplace has failed; the lethality of fire spurred developed countries to introduce codes and regulations to prevent it. That’s why two recent fire disasters in the West—one in California last year that killed 36 people and one in London this week that killed many more than the 30 people now identified— are so shocking and unacceptable.
In an earlier industrial age, indifference to human life—as well as plain ignorance about basic safety provisions—caused terrible suffering. In 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in downtown Manhattan killed 146 people. The factory’s owners thought that it was economical and convenient to keep workers locked inside. The building, which still stands, was fireproof; the people were not.
Keeping people safe from fire at their workplaces and in their homes was one of the modern West’s first truly reformist causes. After the Shirtwaist fire, New York State enacted new laws requiring emergency exits and fire extinguishers, as well as better building materials. Much of the country and the developed world followed.
Though the West knows how to prevent fire today, it doesn’t always take the necessary steps, particularly in the Third World countries that now produce much of what it consumes. One hundred and one years after the Triangle tragedy, in 2012, the Tazreen Fashion fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh killed at least 117 people. The factory’s owners, who supplied Western clothing chains, thought it economical to skimp on emergency exits. Young women and girls in Bangladesh did not have what we take for granted: well-enforced laws to govern capitalism’s worst impulses.
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