A New York Times article asking what Manhattan’s capacity is — which starts with the observation that its population was much higher during the tenement era, and ends with a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ — leads to a fascinating Wikipedia entry about Kowloon Walled City. It looked like this:

or like this:

It was demolished in 1994.

Presumably we have zoning limits on the sort of houses people can inhabit in Boston and New York. They presumably include access to clean water and ample sunlight; mandatory sewage connections; minimum square footage; and so on.

The argument against these sorts of limits would be that if people want to live in a closet, they should be able to. More generally — and this is an argument I think I saw in Ed Glaeser’s book Triumph of the City — if people are willing to pay good money to live in a closet, closets must be better than the other options that are available to them. And who are we to say that that’s not an option they should have? As terrible as favelas seem to us, they must be better than the alternatives available to those who live near Rio; if we forbid slums, we actually make life worse for those who believe that they’d have a better life in the slums.

Current Massachusetts law requires that

In each kitchen landlords must provide a sink sufficient for washing dishes and kitchen utensils, stove and oven in good working order, unless the written rental agreement states the tenant must provide this, and electrical hook-ups for installation of a refrigerator. The landlord is not required to provide a refrigerator, but if s/he does, it must be maintained by the landlord in good working order.

What if I eat all my meals out?

Taken to its logical conclusion, this would seem to say that if I want to live in Boston but don’t care about using a toilet or brushing my teeth (meh; I can shower at work), I should be able to pay less for rent to make that happen. There should be a spectrum of housing available, including windowless hovels (“PUBLIC TOILET MERE STEPS FROM THE FRONT DOOR!”). Whereas current law says that

Landlords must maintain the foundation, floors, walls, doors, windows, ceilings, roof, stairwells, porches, chimneys and all structural elements so as to exclude wind, rain, and snow; so as to be rodent-proof, weather tight, watertight, and free of chronic dampness, in good repair and fit for human habitation at all times

, you can imagine the argument that tenants should be allowed to rent structurally weak buildings so long as the tenants are completely aware of the risks they’re taking. Matt Yglesias made what sounded to many people like a similar argument in an international context after the deaths of many people in a Bangladeshi factory:

Bangladesh may or may not need tougher workplace safety rules, but it’s entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States.

A lot of people, myself included, objected to this. Matt’s reply was that different U.S. states have different safety regulations, so it’s not absurd to have this sort of regulatory flexibility in the U.S.

Well, if that‘s not absurd, why stop with U.S. states? Why not allow flexibility between cities? Why not allow flexibility within cities?

One tautological response is that Boston shouldn’t allow regulatory flexibility because that’s not something that Boston does. The people, in their wisdom, have decided that Boston is the sort of place with high standards for housing safety.

Another argument would be to ask what this sort of flexibility is meant to obtain. Is the point just to create more cheap housing? If so, then we should create more cheap housing — either by building more housing, period (which means building up), or by subsidizing existing housing for those who can’t afford the high-safety-standard housing we have.

In general, there’s what the economists would call a “distributional problem”; this is a fancy way to put what Anatole France famously called the majestic equality of the law, “which forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.” Allow landlords to build subpar buildings, and it won’t be the rich who die when their floors collapse.

On the other hand, maybe you have to assume that people have agency: they know the risks available to them, and they make decisions appropriately. Suppose that in this libertarian paradise, the government doesn’t regulate building construction, but does honestly evaluate the risk of building collapse, and then provides this risk assessment to potential tenants: “You have a 10% chance of dying in a fire,” say. Even suppose the government frames this in a suitably severe way: “If you live here for ten years, you can expect to die in a fire.” What then? Are we happy with this?

It seems pretty clear to me that we’re not happy with this. Even if we brush away various economic trifles, I still think we’re not happy with this. Suppose there are no unpriced externalities, for instance — that when my apartment burns down, it doesn’t take yours down with it. And suppose that corruption isn’t a problem — that if we allow slumlords to build defective buildings, they won’t bribe local politicians into underrating the risk of a fiery death. I suspect that people still don’t believe that different cities should have different safety standards; and they especially believe that safety standards shouldn’t vary within a city. Even the thought that different states have different safety standards, I would wager, strikes most Americans as offensive.

If I’m reading the public’s intuitions correctly, shouldn’t that same moral outrage extend to international safety standards? Shouldn’t we be upset that the accident of having been born in the United States buys you a safer workplace than someone who’s born in Bangladesh?

At the same time, why not reason as follows? Different nations are differently wealthy. As their incomes rise, they choose to spend their money on different things. Maybe (I can’t speak to the details) Bangladesh as a society has chosen to spend its limited funds on control of infectious diseases, on sewage treatment, and on clean drinking water. As it gains more money, perhaps it will spend some of that money on improving workplace safety. After that, maybe it will spend some money on guaranteeing retirement income. And after it’s solved public-health problems, maybe it will spend money on the diseases of affluence, like heart disease and diabetes. Should we object to their workplace safety any more than we do to their not providing 401(k)s? My intuition to this line of argument is no, we should allow them to spend their money where they wish. I think most Americans would agree, and I’ve just conducted a thought experiment (thought poll) where 99.2% of Americans agreed with me.

So then turn the lens back around: if it’s perfectly okay for poor nations to choose where to spend their scarce resources, why isn’t it okay for poor people in the United States to choose where to spend their scarce resources? The tautological answer that Boston isn’t the sort of city that allows poor people to live in substandard dwellings doesn’t feel complete: “Boston” doesn’t make decisions. Its voters make decisions through their elected representatives, and the question is why its elected representatives shouldn’t allow tenements for those who believe that tenements are their best option.

Maybe the best answer I can come up with is not a normative one (which is what I’m looking for above — an answer about what we should do), but rather empirical and historical. The argument comes in two parts. First, some decisions are collective and some are individual. We, as a society, have decided that food safety and building quality, among many other things, are too important to be left to the whims of individuals. The scope of what is collective increases with affluence. And in the United States, at least, a choice’s becoming collective means, sometimes, that we set universal floors: merely labeling Sinclair brand sausage with “caveat emptor: may contain rat droppings” no longer suffices once food safety has become a collective decision. This is still uncomfortably tautological: it doesn’t answer whether a certain decision should be collective; it only predicts, on the basis of recent history, that certain decisions do become collective as affluence rises.

What happens as markets become interconnected? Consider the international food system, for instance. As a legal matter, I imagine that food which could end up on U.S. consumers’ plates is subject to U.S. food-safety regulations, because U.S. food-safety has become a collective decision with a universal floor. How about food produced in the United States for consumption in other countries? Can U.S. manufacturers produce ground beef with rat droppings in it for consumption in China? Or does the scope of this collective decision extend both to U.S. consumers and U.S. producers?

Have I missed any arguments for allowing everyone to choose the safety standards that fit them best?