If fireproofing is a waste for the poor, it is also a waste for the rich

Megan McArdle has this piece about the London fire in which she argues that it could be that installing sprinklers and other fireproofing will actually kill more people than it saves:

If it costs more to build buildings, then rents will rise. People will be forced to live in smaller spaces, perhaps farther away. Some of them, in fact, may be forced to commute by automobile, and then die in a car accident. We don’t see those costs in the same way as we see a fire’s victims; we will never know the name of the guy who was killed in a car accident because he had to live far from work because rents rose because regulators required sprinkler systems. But that is a distinction for public opinion, not for good policy making. Good regulations would take into account the proximate and distant effects.

She is careful to say she has no idea if this is actually true in this scenario, but nonetheless feels like we need to consider this possibility.

So let us actually consider this possibility and tease out its full implications, not only as it pertains to the housing of the poor, but also as it pertains to the housing of the rich.

McArdle argues that fireproofing will increase unit building costs and the negative effect this has is that people have to live farther away and commute for longer periods of time. But if this is true, then it is true of fireproofing in general. The Kensington mansions that have substantial fireproofing also have the exact same detrimental effect on rents. And so if it can be determined that those effects are so negative that fireproofing is net harmful, then fireproofing should be banned. Allowing an owner of a Kensington mansion to fireproof their home is to allow the owner to literally kill other people.

Indeed, if you are worried about the higher rents caused by fireproofing, you should also be worried about the higher rents caused by high-end amenities in general. Ban granite countertops. Ban exposed brick. Ban everything else that about a housing unit that gets rich people excited enough to pay higher rents. You can live with a laminate countertop. Others literally will not live if you install a granite one.

McArdle then goes on to argue that, separate from the issue of rents, the resources that go into fireproofing could be dedicated towards other things. But once again, this argument is equally applicable to the fireproofing carried out by rich people. If it is a waste to use some of the country’s scarce work hours and scarce raw materials to put a sprinkler system into a public housing complex, then it is just as much of a waste to use those same hours and materials to put the system into a private housing complex. The wastefulness of a particular unit of production does not change just because the income of its consumer is higher.

As David Lammy noted: “If you want to build these buildings, then let them at least be as good as the luxury penthouses that are also being built.” The equivalence between the two with respect to fireproofing is key here. If you think the fireproofing is worth it, then it should be available across the board. If not, then it should be unavailable across the board. This is especially true if you believe, as McArdle does, that the installation of fireproofing has negative externalities because of its effects on rents. It is (arguably) one thing to hurt yourself by wastefully fireproofing; it is another to kill other people by doing so.

Despite the fact that her argument clearly points in the direction of a universal rule on fireproofing (whether yay or nay), that is unsurprisingly not where McArdle ultimately winds up.

People can make their own assessments of the risks, and the price they’re willing to pay to allay them, rather than substituting the judgment of some politician or bureaucrat who will not receive the benefit or pay the cost.

After just saying that unnecessary fireproofing will kill other human beings, McArdle bizarrely reaches the conclusion that individuals should be able to decide on their own whether to do it (i.e. whether to kill other human beings). Even though there is nothing in her argument that supports the idea that fireproofing might be a wise way to allocate resources for the dwellings of the rich but not a wise way to allocate them for the dwellings of the poor, the upshot of her ultimate policy preference is precisely that: the rich will generally be safe from fire, but the poor will not.