Viewpoint: Tragic Morals


Living in the 20th century—in the shadow of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and the Ayatollahs—has the depressing side effect of dulling one's senses to the more mundane manifestations of moral issues. Our exercise of moral judgment is resuscitated any more only when a great and incomprehensible tragedy occurs. And it helps to have the right villain.

The Union Carbide chemical-plant disaster in Bhopal, India, late last year offered such an opportunity for introspection. The horror of a death cloud chasing down more than 2,000 Indian lives aroused the world's conscience.

Today, the professional arm of conscience is the trial lawyer, and no sooner had the ashes of Bhopal detoxified than the adeptly conscientious Mr. Melvin Belli was on the scene as Great White Father to the victims of multinational corporate exploitation. Appearing with Mother Teresa to visit the plaintiffs, Belli deemed the disaster "a nuclear holocaust to a small degree." And fellow American lawyer Federico Sayre raged: "Products banned in the United States have been shipped to the Third World so that some unbridled capitalist can make a profit."

On the home front, an outburst of moral indignation was not far behind. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, environmentalist Richard Asinof was quick to quote the US Minister of Morality, Jesse Jackson: "Suppose the Russians were doing to us what we are now allowing corporations to do to us," intoned the confidant of Third World dictators. "We would make speeches and mobilize our army saying that Russia has no right to pollute our air and contaminate our water and poison our vegetation. In fact, nobody has that right."

Syndicated columnist David Broder even took the message as an omen: 1985 will be the year of "an upsurge in anti-business sentiment." The moral of the story was equally clear: insufficient governmental supervision. "There are bound to be human costs in the easing of government regulation of high-risk industries, from airlines to chemicals to mining. Anyone who doubts that does not understand the history of abuse of workers, customers and neighbors that brought on the regulations in the first place."

But for all the intonations about capitalist irresponsibility at Bhopal, the gas explosions at San Juan Ixhuatepec, Mexico, last November made it clear that human suffering is more easily discounted when happy Americans cannot pontificate so righteously. Killing at least 452 and injuring over 4,000 more, this was the worst industrial accident in Mexican history. But this time, the culprit was Pemex, the government-owned oil monopoly.

There was no Belli, Broder, or Jackson rushing forward to speak for these victims of government irresponsibility. In fact, there may be no one to speak for them at all, for Mexican courts cannot force publicly held Pemex to make restitution to victims and heirs. In this, Mexican law follows Indian and US law, making bureaucratic responsibility a bad joke. Yet the Moral Authority will rest assured that these good people were not victims of corporate greed.

A more careful examination of the Bhopal incident suggests that both it and the Pemex disaster were the result of bureaucratic idiocy. According to the New York Times, the Indian government required that the entire chemical plant be staffed by Indian technicians, despite a 1982 audit showing Indian-worker performance beneath American standards. In fact, Indian contractors built the facility according to design and operation rules enforced by the Indian government. Union Carbide may have had 50.9 percent of the stock shares, but it certainly did not control what Indian bureaucrats had plans for.

Yet the responsibility of faceless bureaucrats is…faceless. That the Indian government moved thousands of squatters onto public land surrounding the plant, leading them to their deaths, will not be litigated—nor will the regulatory insanities that produced the gas leak. And the government's safety inspectors will never be tried by the government's courts.

What Union Carbide, the capitalist, brought to India was its technology—how to manufacture pesticides so that Indians can grow more food. New Republic senior editor Michael Kinsley has pointed out that the Ethiopians would certainly welcome a Union Carbide pesticide factory.

But Mr. Belli speaks for the Moral Authority when, at press conferences around the globe (he made time for publicity stops in Tokyo and New Delhi on his pilgrimage to Bhopal), he expanded upon Jesse Jackson's theme of criminal capitalism. For these preachers, ideology is both a consumption good and an investment good: attacking corporate greed makes the pontificator feel redeemed—and it makes for a fat contingency fee (or front-page photo opportunities), career-wise.

But the victims of tragedy around the world derive no such cheery benefits. For them, government irresponsibility is the unindicted felon who can grin at the jury with impunity. These tragedies would be less condemning of modern man if we could resist Mr. Broder's reflex to instantly whip out a column on the dangers of underregulation. If we are to allow criminally negligent bureaucracies to inflict terror upon their populaces, shouldn't we at least suppress the temptation to worship them?

Contributing Editor Thomas Hazlett is an economist at the University of California at Davis and senior editor of the Manhattan Report on Economic Policy.