Burning People to Death for Profit

I remember watching a very short documentary on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire a few years back. According to the impeccable source Wikipedia, 146 people were killed as a result of the fire, falling from the building or asphyxiation. The workers could not escape due to the doors being locked, apparently in order to stop them taking breaks. Certainly a very horrible event that one would never want to see repeated.

Now further details and speculation on this is not really necessary. The aftermath saw legislation introduced to stop such incidents in the future. This is all well and good and one could hardly have a problem with this.

The problem I have is the take commentators in the documentary had on this.

I can not remember the name of the documentary I’m commenting on but the general idea presented was that without this legislation, this wouldn’t have changed. The idea that the state intervening was what brought positive change. The same is often said with regard to any legislation put through in response to something horrible and unexpected. It is often the general idea presented in the changing conditions of factories through out the industrial revolution. In short, it seems as if people really think that rich factory owners would be okay with seeing their workers burned to death in return for further profit. Perhaps if I put it to them like this, they would deny it but this honestly seems to be the implication.

One could assume that the owners were the biggest scoundrels you could imagine without thinking they would have desired such a thing to happen. Even if you could be cynical with regards to their returns on insurance, the media attention and work stoppages caused by such an incident alone would make it far from worth it.

I would assume that the people making the decisions that led up to this weren’t thinking much at all about such a possibility. It used to be perfectly common for people to smoke cigarettes everywhere, even on airplanes until relatively recently. It is usually only from the ruthless and nasty school of experience that people learn what is and what isn’t a good idea. Sometimes they need quite a few lessons.

Coming back to another issue is the idea that political change is what drives change generally in society. What really does are new inventions, innovations and events and political change is chasing behind and it is almost always behind. A simple example could be drawn from the most recent major societal change with the advent of the Internet. No legislation anticipated this which is why it has played havoc with copyright law, trade and plenty of other legislation. People started using it and laws had to (and still are) adapting to its existence.

There are certainly lessons to be learned from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Those lessons can be seen when every you see a fire extinguisher and an emergency exit. Perhaps you could argue that without the government demanding it, that these incidents would still happen. But they do happen even with legislation when people either don’t understand it or just don’t follow it. And with the amount of rules and regulations in society, it is getting easier and easier to do.

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