A friend and I were discussing the provision of fire services, and he made a comment in passing about how, thanks to government fire codes, fires have dramatically declined. It is true that fires have declined over the last 35 years (at least), but is it true that government fire codes are the reason?

There are at least five untested assumptions behind the idea that fire codes are the cause of a safer world.

Assumption 1: Cause and Effect

The most obvious assumption is that fire codes cause a reduction in fires. It is easy to see how unlikely this is when you perform a simple mental exercise: Imagine enacting US fire codes in, say, India. In India it is not uncommon for electricity to arc between two buildings or for people to pirate electricity by tapping in to an existing power line with a makeshift wire draped across the ground. Surely fire codes would prevent the dangerous electrical fires that sometimes result. The problem is, fire codes already exist in India, but nobody follows them. Why not? Because no one can afford to follow them.

Before government regulations can be broadly followed, they first have to be of limited consequence. Child labor laws only take effect once there are very few children in the work force, due to economic growth. It is well documented that OSHA regulations only came into effect after workplace accidents dramatically declined on their own. If you tried to impose the U.S. minimum wage on a very poor country, no one would follow it because if they did many would die for lack of work, income and food. You cannot wave a magic wand and demand that people take on major costs if the majority of people are not already able to bear the cost. Government regulations have a damaging effect to be sure, but it is primarily on people at the fringes of the economy—the poorest.

Government fire codes receive the credit for reducing fires, when in reality it is economic growth that makes people wealthy enough to spend money on safer construction. The codes come after the fact and claim the credit.

Assumption 2: Irrational Consumers

The idea that government fire codes reduces fires also assumes that, absent such codes, people would not protect themselves from fire. Are people so short-sighted that they would not think to protect their own property if the government didn’t force them to?

It is in everyone’s interest to protect their property from catastrophe like fire, and as such the vast majority of people do. Insurance is a common way to do so, but people also seek safe construction and other assurances against disaster. In fact, insurance companies have a tremendous incentive to only insure buildings with good fire prevention techniques in the first place (except when, as is not uncommon, the government interferes and prohibits insurers from placing stipulations on policies).

It can hardly be granted that people are too foolish to protect their own property from fire damage at all, so maybe it is assumed that people will merely protect their property at a minimum level and not “enough” without being forced to. But what is “enough?”

Assumption 3: Less Fire is Better

Fires are on the decline, and this is universally good, right? Not necessarily. Economist Steve Horwitz gives a question to his students that goes something like this: If a massive earthquake hit a city, what would be the economically optimal number of buildings destroyed? The answer: greater than zero.

How could that be? We all know destruction is not good for the economy (everyone, perhaps, except Paul Krugman). Consider that the cost of making the least valuable shanty in town entirely earthquake-proof is probably more than the value of the building itself. The same goes for fires. Not all structures are of equal value, and not all structures have equal risk of burning down. Because of this, it makes sense that people will have different risk preferences when it comes to protecting their property.

If I own a pole barn full of ice far away from any other buildings or woods, I am unlikely to invest in sophisticated fire prevention or suppression technology (unless compelled by the state), whereas a fancy condo owner in a downtown location is far more likely to pay for the best of the best. It’s easy to see how silly it would be to mandate that every single structure be built to withstand F5 tornadoes, category five hurricanes, massive floods and epic earthquakes. The same principle applies to lesser degrees of protection. For many structures, government fire codes are not worth it and the risk of a fire is lower than the cost of prevention. For others, government codes are not nearly sufficient and much more stringent precautions are in order.

The problem with government codes is that they are blunt and uniform and force everyone into the same mold, squelching innovation and disallowing the kind of marginal risk assessment that conserves resources. Not only are less valuable structures forced to overprotect, but often government codes are so widely accepted that more valuable structures are perceived to be sufficiently protected if they meet government standards, when in fact they may be better off with more.

Assumption 4: Irrational Politicians and Overconfident Bureaucrats

For fire codes to be the cause of enhanced safety it would require irrational political actors. Elected officials and bureaucrats would have to act not in their own rational self-interest, but on behalf of the public at large. To choose just the right amount of fire protection and just the right technologies to supply it requires not only a denial of potential individual profit (by cozy deals with some companies, etc.), but also a superhuman knowledge of what kind of construction everyone needs in every situation.

In reality we see that “rent-seeking” is prevalent everywhere the government intervenes—indeed, it could not be otherwise. How is a politician to choose the physical properties that must be present in caulk used between drywall and copper piping in a commercial building? Without the expertise they—or a wide array of public agencies—must rely on the information provided by competing companies. If it all sounds the same, do you think the company that donates to the right political campaigns might get an advantage? It is a fairy tale to imagine political actors wise and selfless enough to pick exactly the right amount and type of fire protection for every application. Every time they do pick, it reduces the options available to consumers and stunts the discovery procedures of the market in finding the best methods.

Assumption 5: The Government Did It

A final assumption is that the codes and norms of fire safety are, in fact, created by the government. In our discussion my friend mentioned government fire codes but also added a, “Thanks to UL.” UL is Underwriters Laboratory, a non-government organization that certifies goods for safety. They have built up quite a reputation in the marketplace and are highly trusted. (So much so that one professor has taken to chewing on UL certified power cords to prove how safe they are!)

It is often assumed that the order we see around us is the result of a government mandate—after all, mandates do exist for almost everything. But more often than people realize there are private entities and institutions doing the heavy lifting—UL is just one of them. There is a market demand for fire codes, and the market supply is far more complex, subtle, efficient and diverse than a government could ever be.

Conclusion

It is easy to assume government ought to get the credit for a great many life improvements. After all, government agents are constantly taking any opportunity to claim credit for everything under the sun, and to pass laws and regulations that demand certain improvements, whether or not they already exist. The existence of indecent exposure laws is not what keeps me from running naked through the shopping mall, and such laws shouldn’t be credited with my propriety. It’s naïve to assume that fire codes are the cause of a safer society, not merely a reflection of it.

Laws are less powerful than we think they are.