After the miners’ rescue Wednesday, talk in Chile turned to mine safety and the conduct of Compania Minera San Esteban, the corporation that owns the San Jose mines where the miners were trapped. On Thursday, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera publicly addressed safety issues, vowing “fundamental changes in how businesses treat their workers.”
Stories about San Esteban’s horrible record are legion (e.g., here and here). The company has been host to a number of deaths at its mines in recent years, and accusations of safety violations including the charge that it ignored orders to install safety equipment–a condition of its reopening after a previous accident–which might have made an earlier escape possible for some miners.
Moreover, during the debacle, San Esteban, which played no part in the miners’ rescue, pled poverty and claimed it could not pay the trapped miners wages. As London’s Independent reported, San Esteban “says it has no money to continue paying their wages, let alone cope with the lawsuits that will inevitably arise from the ordeal.”
All in all, one might say it wasn’t an episode in which capitalism cloaked itself in glory. That is, unless one is Wall Street Journal deputy editorial page director and “Wonder Land” columnist Daniel Henninger. In his October 14 column, “Capitalism Saved the Miners: The Profit = Innovation Dynamic Was Everywhere at the Mine Rescue Site,” Henninger argued that the miners owed their rescue to a special drill bit developed by a private U.S. company. That was his entire argument.
Henninger’s real motive seemed to be to use the miners’ rescue to rebut a bit of Obama campaign rhetoric in which the president had sarcastically dismissed notion of unqualified faith in markets:
The basic idea is that if we put our blind faith in the market and we let corporations do whatever they want and we leave everybody else to fend for themselves, then America somehow automatically is going to grow and prosper.
Henninger’s response to Obama’s remark:
Uh, yeah. That’s a caricature of the basic idea, but basically that’s right. Ask the miners.
I’m sure the miners are thankful for the heroic drill bit, but their opinion of the role of capitalism in their debacle might be less breathless than Henninger’s. Indeed, most of the miners have weighed in on the central capitalist actor in the story: At least 29 of the 33 miners’ families have filed lawsuits against San Esteban.
Also inconvenient for Henninger’s argument: The rescue was run by the Chilean government and its relevant ministries, not by the capitalist company. Oh, and the U.S. government’s space agency, NASA, also played a crucial role, designing the rescue capsule and consulting on safety issues.
Moreover, it’s worth noting that, while Chile’s larger, government-owned mines have relatively good safety records, the same cannot be said for its smaller, capitalist-run mines, such as San Esteban’s.
No one argues that capitalism does not produce new innovations (while sometimes stifling innovations too), but in Henninger’s capitalist Wonder Land, the bad actions of capitalists, aswell as the the good and vital acts of governments, are banished to the real world.