Regulation on the horizon?


I feel a regulation coming on. The Times last week carried a headline on the China earthquake: "Human cost of cut-price concrete is revealed in the rubble." I didn't have to read the story: you know what it means. Shoddy materials contributed to the death toll as substandard buildings collapsed.

Normally following such disasters, the Chinese government rounds up 'cowboy builders' and various 'racketeering' architects, town planning officials and the like. They're shot, and the families are sent a bill for the bullet. (Though the cost of sending the bill and collecting the cash must far exceed the few yuan-worth of lead.) It's designed to encourage the others – though the others are probably just as innocent.

People use cheap building materials because – well, they're cheap. It's a waste of resources – time, money, energy, materials – to use stuff that's costlier than you need. Save money and you can use the change on something that you really want a lot more. Sure, at the back of your mind, if you live in an earthquake zone, is the fact that every few hundred years your particular town might get hit by a tremor and some people will be killed. But that's a risk you have to calculate. Save money now and that saving can be put to good use and grow your economy, making you rich enough to deal rather better with natural disasters.

I make the same calculation every time I fly or drive somewhere. These activities are risky: there is a finite chance I'll be killed in a crash. And make no mistake, being killed is a pretty big deal as far as I'm concerned. I still do it, because the potential benefits to me far outweigh that small risk.

This time, China might spare us the shootings. They're beginning to realise that it's better to have the sympathy of the world than its disgust. But The Times headline makes me dread that they will introduce all sorts of new building standards. Why's that bad? Because it will make houses, apartments, shops and offices that much less affordable. Less will be built, and people will continue to live in insanitary squalor (at the risk to their health and indeed lives, of course) and economic growth will be that much slower. The rational calculations of individuals will be outlawed by the political necessity of the authorities.