Bhopal, 1984

Managing predatory private interests

Charles Perrow makes the case in The Next Catastrophe that modern society is substantially riskier than it needs to be because we have bundled dangerous activities tightly together with dense populations. LNG tanks near central cities, hotels built in flood zones, and failure-prone nuclear reactors sprinkled across the landscape. All these placement decisions seem irrational from the god’s-eye view, and yet they are the rule rather than the exception. And disasters like Katrina, Three-Mile Island, or or Bhopal are the consequence.

Weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) already litter our landscape; terrorists need not sneak them in, and they are more likely to be triggered by natural and industrial disasters than by terrorists. Ninety-ton tank cars of chlorine gas are WMDs that travel daily through our cities; dispersing the deadly gas via a tornado or hurricane, an industrial accident, or a terrorist’s suitcase bomb would endanger up to seven million people. (kl 78)

Perrow concedes that we can’t eliminate the risks, since modern society requires energy production, chemical plants, and a rail system to move hazardous products around. But he notes that our technological and logistical geography could be designed differently, so that inevitable failures of these various activities have only limited effects on the public. We can reroute tankers containing chlorine around cities rather than moving right through them.

But, he notes, most modern societies don’t do a good job of containing these sorts of hazards through artful distribution of dangerous activities away from population centers. Why not? Because there are powerful local and short-term interests that are powerful enough to prevail through the various processes in which a democracy seeks to mitigate risk. Developers have an interest in putting up hotels in flood plains and they can influence local regulators in their direction. Owners of chemical and nuclear plants have an interest in evading inspections, and they can subvert regulatory agencies. And cities want cheap natural gas, so they prevail in placing LNG in locations that minimize transportation costs. The result? Disaster after disaster.

Two of the major themes in this work are the inevitable failure of organizations, public and private, to protect us from disasters and the increasing concentration of targets that make the disasters more consequential. (lc 100)

These arguments are persuasive and deeply concerning. From Mississippi River flooding to global warming, we appear as a collectivity to be unable to take the most self-evident steps of self-preservation. Private interests, and especially corporate interests, appear to defeat us at every turn.

A central theme of right-wing politics is the idea that the modern democratic state is too intrusive, and that the republic would be better off with less government intervention. Public lands should be managed by ranchers (ha!), chemical and nuclear plant owners should be trusted to maintain high safety standards because of their economic interests and the cost of failures (ha!), and the public should protect itself from food adulteration and unsafe drugs (ha!). However, there is every reason for us to expect that less government equals less freedom and more coercion. That is because we surely understand that there are predators, both individual and corporate, who have an interest in shaping, dominating, and exploiting less powerful members of society. And these powerful interests have almost unlimited ability to take what they want. (Think Russian oligarchs!) So a social order in which there are not substantial protections of law and regulation is likely to be one in which there is a great deal more risk, coercion, and exploitation than even we find in our contemporary world.

Crackdown on Moscow protest

So the romanticism associated with small government, libertarianism, and various stripes of anarchism seems to be particularly clueless when it comes to understanding the dynamics of power and interest in a modern society. Robert-Nozick world would be a nightmare of adulteration, toxification, coercion, fraud, and domination by powerful interests (Anarchy, State, and Utopia). If we didn’t have an Environmental Protection Agency to establish some basic protections of the public from the worst toxics in air and water; a Nuclear Regulatory Agency to oversee reactor safety; or a Food and Drug Administration to prevent adulteration and fundamentally unsafe foods and drugs; then we would certainly be overwhelmed by predatory actors who see the profit in degrading our health, safety, and welfare. Ordinary life in current China gives a preview.

Hired violence against Beijing protesters

The threats that we currently face to the fundamental goods of liberty, safety, and security come from the fact that the state and its institutions are often toothless, not that they intrude too much on “private” activity. Perrow’s academic analysis of safety organizations makes a powerful case for the crying need for stronger states, not weaker states, when it comes to governance and regulation. Perrow demonstrates the inability of safety agencies as currently grounded to do their work in the face of the strategies of predators like corporations, lobbyists, or corrupt officials. This suggests that the greatest challenge we face is to achieve the design of a stronger system of public governance and regulation that is substantially better at the central tasks it is charged with: maintaining the safety, liberty, and wellbeing of all citizens.