Forced compliance has not been more effec-tive in preventing death and serious physicalinjury in the nation’s mines than the policy of information that preceded it.
Since the turn of the 20th century, fatalities in the nation’s mineshave been steadily declining irrespective of fed-eral police intervention. In fact, on a fatality permillion ton basis, it appears that the trendtoward fewer fatalities in the coal mines actual-ly slowed after the forced compliance approachwas introduced.Although that observation may come as asurprise to people like Reich, who believe inthe capable beneficence of the federal gov-ernment, it will not surprise those in the min-ing industry who recognize that forced com-pliance does not equate to improved safety.The Mine Act attempted to resolve a per-ceived, but probably not real, economic prob-lem with a legalistic solution. The legalisticapproach, which substituted rules for results,inspector vigilance for employee vigilance,and sanctions for cooperation, was inferior,in every respect, to the informationalapproach taken by the Bureau of Mines.Obviously, a legalistic approach thatyields no measurable benefits in terms of lives saved while diverting resources fromwealth creation and even safety-related activ-ities is not the best use of societal resources.In this regard, the necessary corollary to thesentiments expressed by Reich is that any“good that the government can do” is onlygood for those who reap the benefits. TheMine Act benefits Labor Departmentemployees, organized labor institutions,large unionized mine operators, and, of course, attorneys,
to the detriment of thepeople who might otherwise benefit if thoseresources were put to other uses.Because the Mine Act fails to achieve itsstated objective and squanders society’sscarce resources, Congress should repeal, orat least significantly amend, it.
In theabsence of federal policing, responsibility forthe safety of the nation’s mines would fall onAmerican society, state and local govern-ments, and ultimately the individuals whomake up the mining industry. In the eventthat there is a demonstrated market failureonce the forced compliance approach isabandoned, the federal government shouldlimit its role to the tried and true approach of providing information and, perhaps, creatingmonetary incentives for additional invest-ments in workplace safety. However, lawenforcement, in the limited circumstances inwhich it is appropriate, should be left to localauthorities, which are accountable to thecommunities that they serve.
The Emotional Origin of Safety Regulation
The origin of federal police interventionin the nation’s mines was, in large part, theNovember 1968 explosion in Farmington,West Virginia, that fatally injured 78 coalminers.
Unfortunately, the Farmingtonexplosion was not the first or even the worstcoal mine disaster in our nation’s history.According to MSHA, “the deadliest year” inU.S. coal mining history was 1907, when3,242 deaths occurred and a single mineexplosion killed 358 people near Monongah,West Virginia.
Despite the tragic number of deaths, mine disasters, such as Farmingtonand Monongah, were not even the largestcontributors to the loss of life in the nation’scoal mines.
The Farmington disaster was specialbecause it was the first mining disaster thatreceived nationwide media coverage.According to one account, “The resolution of the disaster . . . played out in the living roomsof America” and “created a media circus thatwould measure up to anything generatedsince.”
Congress, responding in large part to thepublicity that the disaster received, convenedhearings on coal mine safety and health. Thefocus of the congressional hearings was noton the testimony of safety professionals,actuaries, statisticians, and economists buton the testimony of “daughters and wives” of coal miners who had perished in theFarmington mine.
Such emotional testimo-
Forced compli-ance has not beenmore effective inpreventing deathand serious phys-ical injury in thenation’s minesthan the policy of information thatpreceded it.