Why We Have Regulations: So People Don't Get Buried in Molasses

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Public Domain. Boston Public Library via Wikipedia

100 years ago the Great Molasses Flood started another flood, one of regulations to protect people's health and safety.

The American Government fundamentally dislikes regulations and says so right in an executive order: "It is essential to manage the costs associated with the governmental imposition of private expenditures required to comply with Federal regulations." But many of those regulations are there to protect the health and safety of citizens.

And many of those regulations reflect a change in attitude and in law caused by the Great Molasses Flood of January 15, 1919. AsJohn Platt explains on MNN,


Firehouse destroyed by molasses/ Boston Public Library/Public Domain

The 21 people who died in Boston on Jan. 15, 1919, had little warning of the events that were about to occur. According to an article published the next day in The New York Times, the only sound before the disaster was "a dull, muffled roar." That was the noise made by the explosion of a massive tank of molasses owned by the Purity Distilling Company. Moments later, more than 2 million gallons of hot, thick, sticky molasses flooded the surrounding streets, destroying buildings, overturning wagons and trucks, and even knocking an elevated train off its tracks. Witnesses say the wave of molasses reached as high as 30 feet tall and it traveled as fast as 35 miles per hour.

Piles of lawsuits were filed after the disaster. The company's defense was that the tank had been dynamited by Italian anarchists, who were apparently common in Boston at the time. In fact, it was your garden variety construction failure; according to an article in the Daily Kos, there were many warning signs. It "fell through the cracks – it was neither a building, nor a bridge, nor any of the other structures that required the approval of, and the filing of, engineering blueprints with the Boston building department." They tried hard to cover up the flaws; according to an article in the Straight Dope:

Construction of the tank had been overseen, or more accurately gazed stupidly at, by Arthur Jell, a bean counter with no technical background who was unable even to read blueprints. Anxious to complete the tank in time for the arrival of the first molasses shipment, Jell forwent the elementary precaution of filling it first with water to test for leaks. Once molasses was pumped in, the tank leaked so copiously at the seams that neighborhood kids collected the drippings in cans. When an alarmed employee complained, Jell's response was to have the tank painted brown so the leaks wouldn't be so noticeable.

But it was an era when companies could do pretty much what they wanted and get away with it in courts. It was known as the Lochner era of the courts, after a famous case. Matthew Lindsay wrote in the Harvard Law Review:

American judges steeped in laissez-faire economic theory, who identified with the nation's capitalist class and harbored contempt for any effort to redistribute wealth or otherwise meddle with the private marketplace, acted on their own economic and political biases to strike down legislation that threatened to burden corporations or disturb the existing economic hierarchy.

Boston changed all that. After six years of investigation, it was determined that nobody with engineering expertise had designed the tank, it was never tested or inspected, the steel supplied did not meet specifications, and the rivets and plates were not adequate to handle half the static load, let alone the buildup of pressure from gases on an unusually hot January day. The company was held totally responsible and hit with a huge fine. Stephen Puleo wrote in his history Dark Tide: the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919:

...the molasses flood and the court decisions that followed marked a symbolic turning point in the country's attitudes toward Big Business, which for most of the first quarter of the twentieth century had been subjected to few regulations to safeguard the public....a corporation could be made to pay for wanton negligence of the sort that led to the construction, with virtually no oversight or testing, of a monstrous tank capable of holding 26 million pounds of molasses in a congested neighborhood.
cars destroyed

Vehicles destroyed/ Boston Public Library/Public Domain
It changed the way construction was regulated in America. According to the Daily Kos author:

On the public policy side, in the wake of the flood, the city of Boston required that all calculations of architects and engineers, as well as copies of their signed and sealed plans, be filed with the city's building department before a permit could be issued. That practice spread across the country and is required by most permitting authorities in the United States today. It also led, first Massachusetts, and subsequently states across the nation, to strengthen engineering certification requirements and require the sealing of drawings by registered professional engineers.

On this centenary of the Boston Molasses Flood we should remember that regulations exist for a reason: to protect the health and safety of citizens. That is what is known as the cost of doing business. Just google "regulations strangling American business" and you will find a million posts complaining with language like:

Money spent keeping records, hiring regulatory compliance officers, and dealing with the bureaucrats who promulgate and enforce these regulations—which affect nearly every aspect of daily life—is money not available for families to spend on their own needs. Indeed, it’s money businesses don’t have to invest in buildings, equipment and jobs. Regulations are like a tax on economic activity. And they’re a regressive one, at that, meaning they fall most heavily on low-income households and small businesses.

No. Really, these people should have to eat molasses every day and think about what they are writing. Regulations are about health and safety and saving lives and not drowning in molasses. As Mass Moments notes:

The molasses case marked the beginning of the end of an era when big business faced no government restrictions on its activities — and no consequences.

We seem to have forgotten that.