Tuesday, March 19, 2002

Non government regulation - how it has been done

There was a time when the US federal and state govts was not as pervasive as today. How did people cope without a nanny state to protect them? Here's an example, if you can avoid nodding off at the subject matter.

The Industrial Revolution was all about the rise of mechanical engineering, particularly steam power. People soon learned that steam at higher pressures could do more work for a given boiler, and thus they started running their boilers hotter. Then they learned that they didn't know so much about making safe boilers - it was common that they would explode, killing and maiming many people. Back then they really knew how to gamble on riverboats - in 1865 the Sultana blew up, killing 1,238 passengers. That's right, 1,238 passengers.

So what to do - declare a moral equivalent of war and demand the govt "do something!"? No, the following year saw the creation of the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company. The company started publishing specs for boiler designs they would insure and they inspected boilers for manufacturers.

Later on came the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). In 1914 they published the first "Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code". This has evolved into a thick series of books which govern design, construction, installation, maintenance and operation for products ranging from hot water heaters to nuclear reactors.

Govts are still involved to a limited extent in that the Code is usually adopted as part of building codes or other law. But the Code itself is maintained by committees of experts in the field - although the experts typically are employees of companies involved in relevant businesses, there are no lobbyists here. And inspectors work for a company that has its own cash on the line in the event of failure, not some unmotivated bureaucrat ticking off days until retirement.

Does it work? When was the last time you heard of a boiler explosion hurting anyone?

Alright, so that might not have been the most exciting topic in the world. If you want something smuttier I'll have to pass you to Kevin Holtsberry. Let's give him a hand...

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