Further Thoughts on the Bangladesh Factory Disaster

It seems like the entire Internet has registered its objections to this piece I wrote on the Bangladesh factory disaster. And I have to say that my overwhelming personal response, as a writer and as a human being, is to be annoyed by the responses that I’m getting. But let me try to be mature about it instead and say—what happened in Bangladesh is a tragedy and a human disaster, and to the best of my knowledge it’s also quite literally a criminal disaster under the existing laws of Bangladesh. The perpetrators ought to be punished. More broadly: Bangladesh ought to enforce its laws. Even more broadly than that: Bangladesh’s citizens deserve honest and uncorrupt government rather than government that’s excessively under the sway of the interests of apparel factory owners. Dylan Matthews has an informative interview with Kimberly Ann Elliott of the Center for Global Development in which she—a person who has relevant detailed knowledge of the situation—outlines a variety of modest measures that could improve the situation, and you should read it.

Here’s what I did. I read a guy who pivoted from the tragedy to a call for the U.S. government or U.S. consumers to try to impose U.S. safety standards on all U.S.-supplying factories around the world. I did not have detailed information about the situation in Bangladesh, but I did—and continue to—have good reason to believe that this call was mistaken. So I wrote a post trying to outline why I think it’s appropriate for rich countries to have more stringent standards than poor ones, and I absolutely stand by that conclusion.

But at a certain point as a writer, if you feel like everyone’s misreading you, you have to consider the possibility that you’ve miswritten (thanks to Kendall Clark for making the point). I wanted to write about something I know about (the sound basis for globally differentiated regulatory regimes), and people wanted to read about the news (a scandalous breakdown of Bangladeshi law and basic concepts of informed consent), and mixing them up has done no good.

To pivot from this to policy debates that we’re actually having in the United States right now, I think it’s always worth thinking about immigration policy and climate change in this context. The conventional political dialogue in the United States on both of these issues places zero moral weight on the interests of foreigners. Yet that’s clearly incorrect. The interests of potential migrants and potential flood victims matter. And while I’m not really sure what Americans can constructively do to get better enforcement of building codes in Bangladesh, it’s pretty clear that we can do less to poison the atmosphere and more to open our doors to people seeking better opportunities for themselves.