THE BLOG
05/22/2013 12:49 pm ET | Updated Jul 22, 2013

Free-market Conservatism Kills: Oklahoma Buildings Don't Have Safe Rooms Because "Regulation Rankles"

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Free-market conservatism kills? Yes, that's right. That's what we saw when an EF5 tornado blew through Moore, Okla. on Monday. What do the tornado-related deaths of 24 people, including nine children, have to do with free-market conservatism? Because, as The New York Times' John Schwartz reported, there were no rules in Moore or anywhere else in Oklahoma mandating that buildings -- not even schools like Moore's Plaza Towers Elementary, where seven children died -- have so-called "safe rooms" or underground shelters to protect people during a storm.

Why aren't these safe rooms or shelters mandated by law in Oklahoma? The article's headline notes the "Cost and Culture of the Plains." Going into more detail, Schwartz explains that Oklahoma is not unique among states in Tornado Alley in its lack of regulation mandating safe rooms or shelters. He summarizes the feelings of the area's residents as follows: "Government regulation rankles." (Emphasis is mine.)

Think about that. Government regulation rankles. Never mind that Moore's own city website advises that "every residence have a storm safe room or an underground cellar." They know this is the right thing to do. But government regulation rankles.

Moore had been hit by a severe tornado on May 3, 1999, yet of the 40 new homes constructed since, only six contained a safe room. The Times reporter interviewed the past president of the Oklahoma State Home Builders Association, Mike Gilles, who opposed a law requiring that homes have a safe room: "Most homebuilders would be against that because we think the market ought to drive what people are putting in the houses, not the government."

I'm sorry, but no, we cannot trust the marketplace when it comes to safety. Capitalism, if unregulated and/or underenforced, will always, always, always ensure a race to the bottom when it comes to cost. Whether it's builders in Oklahoma, or fertilizer plant owners in West, Texas, or mine owners in West Virginia, it's essentially the same story.

What happened in Moore is outrageous, and represents a(nother) failure of conservative ideology, an ideology built around faith in the free market and a reflexive rejection of regulation. This kind of Ayn Rand-based extreme thinking claims to exalt "freedom" of the individual, but what it does in reality is force individuals into a death race where, in order to compete on cost, they have to cut corners -- putting themselves and others at risk if something goes wrong -- or lose the race. If the chances of disaster are relatively small, too many will choose to cut those corners.

"It won't happen here." "It won't happen to me." Such thinking is even natural, especially among people who exalt the individual's ability to find success through hard work. They are by definition optimists. But such thinking has failed again and again. And while such thinking focuses on freedom, what kind of freedom did the children of Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore have? Did they choose to not have an underground cellar in their school?

I'm sorry, but real freedom means the freedom to express one's views, to worship (or not) as one chooses, to assemble peaceably, to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures, and the other freedoms our Constitution guarantees. Freedom does not mean the right to not build an underground shelter because no pointy-headed government regulator's gonna tell me I have to. That's the "freedom" of a five-year old who won't eat his broccoli and spills his plate on the floor.

There are things that have to be done whether some people like it or not, mostly around the area of safety, because those things cannot be left to market forces or -- when something inevitably goes wrong -- people die. Does it sound like a mommy state? Too bad. Sometimes, when adults act like children, they need a mother's wisdom, backed by the force of law, telling them what to do.

Finally, I want to express my condolences to the families and friends who lost loved ones in Moore, Okla. Although I have criticized the political ideology of the voters and lawmakers in that region, I am in no way suggesting that the men, women, and children who were victims of a terrible natural disaster deserved what happened to them. People who would make such a suggestion need to completely reexamine their thinking.