Bill Hobbs points to a sad and sickening tragedy that happened in a Nashville nursing home last night.

Seven elderly people died in a fire at a Nashville nursing home late last night and 20 were critically injured from burns and smoke inhalation. The building had no sprinklers because it's an old building that was built before sprinklers were required by law. Okay. But what I want to know is: Why would a company that operates nursing homes put frail elderly people to live in a building without sprinklers? What were they thinking?
The answer to Bill's question is pretty simple: the owners of the nursing home predicted that they would make more money that way. The company must have thought that the chance of a deadly fire times the cost of such a fire (in damage and lawsuits) would be less than the cost of housing the elderly folks somewhere else or of adding sprinklers.

Of course, there's also the fact that the elderly people and their families should have noticed that there were no sprinklers in the facility. The absence of sprinklers lowered the safety of the facility's residents, and that lowered safety should have been taken into account by the company's potential clients. Maybe they didn't notice, but the opportunity was there, and a lack of sprinklers is easy to see if you're looking for it.

But most people probably wouldn't think to look for such a thing; most people are probably rationally ignorant about such safety concerns. That is, they are ignorant about such details on purpose, because it would be impossible for every person to know every possible safety measure that should be in place at a nursing home. Or in a car, or a plane, or anything. Because of this rational ignorance, people entrust the government with the responsibility of regulating certain aspects of life. The public can then rest assured that not everyone is ignorant, and that in fact there are some people who dedicate their careers to ensuring the safety of old people in hospitals.

It sounds like the building in question did satisfy the existing regulations. Perhaps the tragedy that occurred is an acceptable loss to society, perhaps not. That's what democracy is about. I expect the relevant regulations in Nashville to be strengthened, if this tragedy gets wide coverage.

One of the consequences of capitalism, and freedom in general, is that each individual bears the majority of the responsibility for their own welfare. In a socialist society, no one is responsible for anything -- everything is provided by the state. The system breaks down, though, because when no one is responsible, no one does anything. There's no incentive.

On the other hand, in a free society everyone is responsible for themselves. If you don't have any food, you have to get a job. Sure, someone might be charitable towards you, but there's no legal obligation for anyone else to support you. In a totally free society, anyone could build a home for old people however they wanted, and each potential client would be wholly responsible for verifying the safety of the establishment. Same for restaurants and their food, and for cars, &c. The benefit of such a society would be that you could open any type of business you wanted, and you could pretty much do whatever you wanted to do -- as long as you were willing to face the potential consequences afterwards.

But you might find yourself spending most of your time testing every hamburger you eat for E. coli, since there would be no regulations to protect you. A free society may be able to take corrective action through lawsuits after a problem (such as a fire in an unsafe nursing home), but there would be little it could to to prevent such problems.

It's pretty easy to see that some non-zero level of regulation is beneficial to society. Where is that level? That's where capitalists and socialists disagree. Personally, I'm happy to know that the food I eat has been prepared to some minimum health standard, and that I'm not likely to get sick and die. Sure, most restaurants might cook good food anyway, even without regulations (it's good for repeat business)... but then, one might expect most nursing homes not to burn down, either.



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