In my previous post, I used the production of drugs as a reason why a government is required for optimal outcomes. Of course, this also requires efficiency and purpose from the government, and admittedly performance is not always very good. That does not mean that governments should be abandoned and everything left to the private sector. No. What it means is the governments need to be booted into efficiency. In this post I shall address construction, and here the performance of government has often been patchy, but invariably the worst outcomes have arisen when minimalist governments were in place. Leave it to the private sector has produced the effects of greed.
The first example comes from ancient Rome. Romans were great constructors, and two of the examples included the provision of sewers and aqueducts. Both of these are for the public good, but neither can easily be made profitable for anyone else to provide them, or at least they could not in ancient Rome, nor in most modern countries. One of the advantages of the Roman government making them was also that they were made well. In terms of sewers, the Cloaca Maxima, built in the fourth century BC and upgraded by Augustus apparently still drains the Forum Romanum and some nearby area. The Romans built to last. The aqueduct that went around the side of Vesuvius survived a pyroclastic blast, and served all of its targeted cities but those that were buried until late in the fifth century, when maintenance was abandoned with predictable results. (The two main ones that were not served were Herculaneum and Pompeii.) I suppose there is an argument that had there been shoddy construction, we would not know about it, but most certainly there was none on the major projects. Why not? One reason may well have been that if you tried to cheat the state in ancient Rome, the penalties tended to be somewhat more severe than we dish out to our worst criminals. One option was to be sold to provide entertainment, and most miscreants would not provide it a second time.
Move forward to Tudor times in England. Ever wondered what caused the Great Fire of London? We don’t really know, but we have a very good idea what caused a number of lesser fires that caused wipe-outs of significant parts of towns. It was caused by the then recent invention of the chimney, and any reasonably well-off Tudor person would have one in his house – or maybe two, one at each end. Chimneys had to be made of brick, with substantial heat barriers, etc, but a few unscrupulous builders found that they could make a lot more money if they built the middle part of the chimney with wood. It was much faster to build, and as long as the owners did not let the chimney soot up, it probably did not matter. The problem was when it did soot up and was not properly swept; now the wood burnt rather nicely, and since the wood connected to the rest of the house, so did the house.
Fast forward to New Zealand. Up until the start of the 1980s, the country had strong building regulations, but by the mid 1980s, there was a bout of deregulation. The market always knew best, said the politicians. My view is the politicians were just plain lazy and could not be bothered doing any more than they absolutely had to. Anyway, there was a building boom, with houses, apartment blocks, and some larger building complexes. Many of the larger ones have not survived in their original form, and one, in Christchurch had short lateral steel reinforcing, so that when the earthquake came along, the flexing of walls in different directions meant there was insufficient length to bridge the gap, and the building pancaked. That was real saving – a few inches of steel missing per girder saved a few dollars and killed many of those trapped in it, thanks to slack governance. In Auckland, there were designs that would never have passed the previous building codes, and that used “new better value materials”. Ten years later, the buildings were found to be horribly leaky and rot and corrosion meant that effectively they were the next best thing to worthless. To make a few extra dollars for the builders and building materials suppliers, many of whom then wound up their companies so the owners had no legal resort, the purchasers easily lost a few hundred thousand dollars each. Here, the innocent lose, because when you buy a house, how many of you really know what the interior of it looks like.
Then, recently, in Taiwan an earthquake flattened a building. The concrete walls apparently had empty oil cans in the walls to save concrete. Concrete has tremendous compressive strength, so as long as the walls etc stayed vertical, there was no problem, as normally such walls have an enormous surplus strength. Unfortunately, concrete has a very poor flexural strength; it either moves as a block or it breaks. In an earthquake, the lateral forces and the cans meant that there was insufficient strength for it to move as a block.
My question is, why should citizens die because someone wants to make a few dollars and cannot be bothered to explain what the risks of using it are? The only organization strong enough to stop this is a government. It is needed, and “I can spend my money better than it can,” is just another form of stupidity or greed.