Why to embrace 'nanny state' after Oakland fire

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Story highlights

  • Juliette Kayyem: Oakland fire shows us that a regulatory state is often a safer one
  • Some regulations impede growth, writes Kayyem, but many set norms for business conduct

Juliette Kayyem is the author of the best-selling "Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home." She is a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School, a former assistant secretary of homeland security in the Obama administration and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.

(CNN)The Ghost Ship was, sadly, appropriately named. The warehouse-turned-art gallery in Oakland, California, was packed with young people out for fun when it became engulfed in flames on Friday night during an electronic dance party. The magnitude of the horror is evidenced by the calendar; even days later, and still officials have not finished scouring the building to recover remains because of the heat and destruction.

Juliette Kayyem
In a world of disasters, this one is so tragic because it was so preventable. Almost every aspect of the Ghost Ship -- its existence, its design, its crowd capacity, its fire (or, actually, lack of) protocols, its materials -- was one regulatory violation after another.
There is no better time than now to state the obvious: All those business regulations that get people so upset exist for a reason. Having regulations sets safety and protection as a priority and establishes a norm for all businesses that those priorities should matter as much as their profits. In order to earn money from a paying public, businesses must abide by a few rules put in place to protect that public. Rules of conduct for businesses separate the mishaps from the tragedies.
Even if in jest, President-elect Trump often criticized fire marshals for limiting the size of his indoor rallies. Fire marshals could not care less about whether the person at the podium is a Republican or Democrat; all they should care about are the people whose lives are at stake.
This reality isn't new, but it bears repeating in an environment where top political officials often dismiss regulations as something that can "kill jobs and bloat government." For decades, businesses have been required to satisfy requirements related to the security of their employees. These include safety and health rules, but they also include requirements for businesses that host the public for events or entertainment. Every day we encounter them: room capacity, signs for emergency exits, elevator certificate inspections. They are so ubiquitous that they are now embedded in our consciousness and how we live our lives in a commercially competitive environment.
These regulations, even when violated as they were at the Ghost Ship, serve as a necessary baseline for how we grow commercially as a nation. In other words, Oakland officials are now talking about criminal liability because of the extensive, and negligent, rule-breaking that occurred to host the party. It isn't that the regulations failed, though it is worth wondering how such a well-known and advertised event wasn't stopped by policy or fire officials. It is that the regulations remind us of what is, and isn't, acceptable behavior.
Ghost Ship should also remind us that when politicians criticize all the regulations that exist in the United States, many of those regulations exist to protect the public from the kinds of tragedies that happened Friday night.
It can sometimes be forgotten, as we tend to focus on the silly rules rather than the significant ones, that 21st century America is a much safer place to exist, work and play than any time in our country's history because government oversight exists. After all, it was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, a fire that killed 146 workers who had no escape route from a factory that had locked doors and overcrowding and whose owners escaped any culpability or liability, that led to the modern-day Labor Department and the advent of worker safety laws.
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It is essential to acknowledge the extent to which these safety and security rules have done much to minimize the harms we all face daily. And it is dangerous to politicize protective measures such as seat belts, space capacity rules, roller coaster height requirements or bonfire prohibitions as attributes of the "nanny state."
No doubt, there are rules and regulations that may impede business growth. President-elect Trump has vowed to spend his first 100 days repealing many of them. But not every regulation is a bad regulation. And a financial burden to business growth -- say the requirement of more doors for quick exits for customers -- often is completely rational.
The regulatory state is often a safer place to live. Ghost Ship is a tragedy, after all, because a fire that kills like that is so rare.