Government’s role, in overseeing these complex systems, is not to tell people exactly what to do. Rules must be laid down to prohibit manifestly unsafe practices, but that is only a start. Machines can be built for safety, but they only work properly when the operating instructions reflect the knowledge of the people who best understand the equipment and the environment in which it operates. It’s up to human beings to pinpoint potential failures, fix them before accidents happen, and act quickly when the rules don’t apply. The real job of regulation is to alter incentive structures so that the necessary institutions and attitudes, referred to as “safety culture,” are created within the organizations that do the work. Here we come to what is perhaps a deeper cause of the Gulf oil disaster. The essence of a safety culture is the empowerment of the rank-and-file worker to identify hazards and prevent accidents. Yet the entire direction of the American economy in recent decades has been to disempower workers. A world of outsourcing, downsizing, and union-busting is not a world where workers take on responsibility. The seeming inability of our institutions to prevent avoidable accidents may be yet another manifestation of America’s social regression.


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