No, Capitalism Didn’t Cause Workplace Accidents

Bloomberg recently published an article providing a few heartbreaking anecdotes of manufacturing plant accidents in southern states, while not-so-subtly implying that the deaths and dismemberments are the inevitable result of unfettered capitalism that the new President Trump has advocated.

I read the article a few days ago when an obnoxiously leftist former professor of mine posted it with the single editorial comment “This is capitalism” and a single-paragraph quote from the article:

Misidentifying the Problem

My knee-jerk response to this type of straw-man argument is to go full Inigo Montoya concerning the use of the word “capitalism.”

The Princess Bride

Proponents of non-capitalistic systems like to ascribe irresponsible consequences to a word they don’t like, but this does not make it so. Capitalism, simply defined, is private for-profit ownership of capital goods (often referred to as “means of production”) where transfer and usage of those goods occurs under voluntary conditions (often referred to as “the free market”).

By definition, then, any system which artificially restricts or regulates the acquisition or use of capital goods beyond what would have occurred under non-coercive circumstances cannot be called “capitalism.”

Disregarding semantics for a moment, there is an important implicit claim in the Bloomberg piece which must be addressed, and that is that private, for-profit control over production machinery will ultimately toss safety out the window for the sake of increased profits. However, this can only occur in cases where competition is artificially prohibited or labor participation is involuntary, neither of which are aspects of a capitalistic arrangement of society.

The Decline in Workplace Fatalities predates OSHA

Workplace accidents are bad for the bottom line, and a factory with a lower accident rate will attract employees more effectively than one with a higher rate for the simple reason that people appreciate keeping all of their appendages and not getting impaled or falling into vats of acid. The simple graph above shows a constantly diminishing rate of workplace fatalities, for example, for decades before OSHA came on the scene. See that rapid increase in the rate of decline after OSHA began? Yeah, me neither.

Further, lawsuits can and should cause financial pain and loss of reputation when accidents are due to real negligence on the part of someone who should have been doing something different. It appears that OSHA was aware of many issues in the safety practices of the companies mentioned in the article, but their imposed fines were pitifully ineffective. In a system without top-down federally regulated safety standards to use as a scapegoat, employee deaths due to negligence might be harder for a company to sweep under the rug.

Voluntary unionization might help if there is a systemic problem with company management—though I don’t believe that’s necessarily the case here. Getting hurt because you did something dumb that was against protocol does not in any way make “capitalism” the thing to blame. Corruption is a human trait, and it is just as easy—if not easier—to find instances of terrible consequences due to cutting corners in socialist countries. For a few examples, see this newspaper excerpt and the thoroughly damning book by Mervyn Matthews, Poverty in the Soviet Union.

There is room to consider the circumstances that a single factory worker is likely to find himself or herself in due to a number of factors that make such a job different than a software engineering position, freelance plumbing job, or even a bottom-rung burger flipper. When your whole town is dominated by a single manufacturing company, and you’re poor, and you feel like you have no other options, it is human nature to keep your mouth shut and put up with bad conditions rather than out yourself as a safety-conscious whistleblower unless things get ridiculously bad. Dangerous work where you roll the dice every day is still preferable to guaranteed starvation.

However, capitalism does not make value judgments about what types of efficiency optimizations are good vs. bad. That decision is influenced by many factors, including the tolerance of employees ultimately taking the risk. Given the choice between $10/hr and 1% probability of an accident or $20/hr and 5% probability of an accident, an informed employee might rationally choose higher pay and less safety. This is obvious since many people go into high-paying dangerous jobs all the time.

The desire to produce more for less is always a driving factor in any business, and there’s nothing wrong with this. If there is a “Meh, a few dismemberments per year is tolerable if we want to win bids” sentiment, that’s a problem, but it surely can’t be solved by changing ownership of the means of production.

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