Boilers are my favorite example of why government regulation of business is a good idea, and with a new president and Congress coming into Washington with visceral and profoundly ignorant views about regulation, today is a good day to remind ourselves why regulations are a good idea.
Around the time of the Sultana disaster (in 1865), people were forced to come to terms with how dangerous boilers could be. The year after that explosion, the first boiler-specific boiler insurance company in the U.S., The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company, was founded. At this point in history, industrial boiler explosions were taking place about once every four days, making them distinctly dangerous sources of energy.
Over the next several decades, more and more safety advocacy groups, safety-oriented legislation and testing codes were introduced, all with the goal of engineering and maintaining safer boilers. While these machines continued to malfunction on occasion, the frequency of catastrophic explosions was significantly diminished as the technology continually improved.I doubt whether any of my readers has ever thought about boiler safety. That's because a sizable industry exists to improve and examine boilers, with the power to condemn the dangerous ones. (Some years ago the late Lahaina, Kaanapali & Pacific Railroad ordered a new steam engine which could never be used because its boiler was condemned.)
Voluntary standards were first, backed up with a form of financial coercion overseen by insurance companies; but while this was a good start, the "fireproof hotel" syndrome (about which RtO has often written) made it inadequate.
It requires the power of the state to enforce sensible behavior on businesses (for profit or otherwise).
Boilers are a poor example in one way, because they are hidden away in basements and outbuildings where no one sees or thinks about them. Comes now, however, an English engineering magazine which ran a contest for pictures of unsafe electrical installations. In poor countries these tend to be public and obvious.
There probably are regulations in most of the places where the "winning" photographs were taken (and certainly so in France, where one winner was found), but that brings up the next point: regulations have to be adequately enforced with regulators given necessary resources.
It costs money, which makes industrial regulation (and many other kinds) a First World solution to a universal problem.
Should anyone wish to dispute this analysis, here's a simple counterfactual: Describe any instance, current or historical, where a business spent money to forestall dangerous conditions before it was compelled to by government force. (If you shop at a Lowe's or Home Depot, consider how they close off aisles where ladders are being used to restock and ask yourself, when did that start, why and have I ever seen the like at my neighborhood hardware store?)
(A list at Wikipedia, very far from complete, shows hardly any boiler explosions in the past 70 years.)