In 1970 Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) and committed the state to protecting workers from industrial accidents and occupational diseases. The Department of Labor was given the authority to set standards governing the working conditions of most American workers. It was also given the right to inspect workplaces and fine employers who violated those standards. In 1971 the department created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an executive agency, to implement the act.
Today, despite the efforts of labor unions and health and safety activists to force public officials to fulfill this promise, little of lasting significance has been accomplished. OSHA has set few new major standards. The agency’s inspectorate is small. Its programs have had little measurable impact on working conditions.
Why has OSHA failed to improve significantly the health and safety of American workers? Public opinion supports the effort. Americans strongly endorse the general aims of protective, or “social,” regulation. Occupational safety and health regulation is particularly popular.1
The law itself gives workers impressive rights. The right to health and safety is expansive and broadly defined. The act’s stated purpose is “to assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions. . .”2 To accomplish this, the act requires that each employer “furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”3 To enforce these rights, the secretary of labor is required, when issuing standards that deal with health hazards, to set standards that assure that “no employee will suffer material impairment of health or functional capacity even if such employee has regular exposure to the hazard dealt with by such standard for the period of his working life.”4
In fact, the law is a remarkable piece of social legislation—radical in scope and vision in two important ways. First, the worker’s right to protection is substantive: the state has a positive obligation to reduce risks. Second, this right is nearly universal; all but a few categories of workers (principally public-sector employees) enjoy it. In contrast, conventional labor legislation gives workers procedural rights. The Labor Management Relations Act (including the Wagner Act of 1935, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, and the 1959 Landrum-Griffin amendments) guarantees employees the right to form and join unions. The actual, substantive conditions of work are left to bargaining among employers and employees. Under these arrangements workers have to fight on their own for safe working conditions. The better organized may succeed; the unorganized or poorly organized live with what their employers choose to do. The state is officially indifferent to these outcomes. Its obligations are satisfied if employers do not prevent workers from exercising their rights to unionize.5
Regardless of this right to safe work, the OSH Act has not been implemented. Despite a positive obligation to protect workers from occupational accidents and diseases, administration after administration has balked at taking these rights seriously. As a result, workers remain at risk—exposed to over 2000 suspected carcinogens and the multiform accidents that can cut, crush, and maim the human body.
This book is about the state’s failure to implement the OSH Act. It describes and explains how and why OSHA has been unable to provide workers with the kind of protection that Congress intended. Based on this explanation, it proposes a way of restructuring the agency’s approach to occupational hazards to improve its performance. Other studies have tackled aspects of this problem. In fact, given OSHA’s short history, there is a rather large literature on it. But this book differs from other works in several respects. Most important, it proposes a radically different explanation for the agency’s failures from those commonly found in both popular and scholarly accounts.
The failure to implement the OSH Act has been explained in one of three basic ways. Some suggest that the goals of the act are to blame; the law’s right to health and safety is not economically feasible in a highly competitive international economy where minimizing the costs of production is so important to the success of firms. In short, it is impossible to provide workers with the blanket protection that Congress stipulated.6 Others suggest that the approach taken by the OSH Act is flawed. Its emphasis on what has been called “command-and-control” regulation to change employers’ behavior—that is, on detailed standards enforced by citations and fines—is misguided and counterproductive. Distant bureaucrats force firms to make changes that have little to do with the realities of production or hazard control.7 Still others argue that OSHA has been frustrated by political opposition—by a business-backed movement for deregulation and, in recent years, the Reagan administration’s intense opposition to government regulation of industry.8
Some of these points make sense; others do not. Clearly, political opposition has taken its toll on the agency. And the emphasis on detailed standards and penalty-based inspections has not proved particularly fruitful. The economic critique of the OSH Act’s right to health and safety is less compelling. It fails to ask or answer why worker protection has borne so much of the brunt of economic decline, while other programs and policies, from defense spending to social security, have proven less vulnerable.
Even those points that do make sense provide partial or incomplete accounts of the agency’s failure. Command-and-control regulation may be inefficient, but it is by no means obvious that it should prove so hard to implement. To the contrary, reformers rely on it because it is a relatively simple way of translating broad policy goals into practice. As for accounts that stress political opposition to OSHA these fail to explain why that opposition has been so effective: why have public officials proven so responsive to the deregulation movement despite the support of public opinioa organized labor, and the environmental movement for occupational safety and health regulation?
A complete account requires a different perspective, one that locates the agency’s failures in a broader, political-economic context. This is the perspective taken here. And from this perspective, other factors stand out. Most important, as I argue, there is a fundamental mismatch between the goals of the act and the approach taken to the control of occupational hazards. This mismatch extends beyond the choice of a command-and-control approach to occupational safety and health regulation to the basic ways in which workers, unions, social reformers, and public officials in the United States attempt to regulate markets and the process of capitalist production.
This choice, then, is part of a wider “liberal” mode of government intervention into the economy. By “liberal,” I mean an approach to social reform in which state action is strictly limited by the property rights of private firms, and workers do not participate directly in efforts to reconstruct capitalist social relations. Public officials do not exercise significant control over production or investment, and workers do not take an active part in decision making in industry or in the implementation of public policies toward business. While this approach makes political sense in the American context, where a Lockean liberal ideology enshrines private property rights and workers are demobilized as a class, it is an ineffective response to the various ways in which American capitalism discourages social reform in general and workplace safety and health in particular. Thus, the problem of implementation is deeply rooted, indeed systemic in the sense that it arises out of a fundamental disjuncture between the ways in which Americans seek to solve social problems and the ways in which the wider socioeconomic system discourages social change.9
The Capitalist State and Social Reform
Given my intention to consider the problem of occupational safety and health from this perspective, I have chosen to work with an analytic framework that focuses on the relationship between American capitalism as a whole and social policy and facilitates the analysis of alternative approaches to reform. For the most part, this framework builds on the recent literature on the “capitalist state.” For those who are not familiar with the basic concepts, I provide a brief summary of them and how they apply to the problem at hand.10
At the most general level, this literature is concerned with revising and rethinking Marx’s view of democratic capitalism. This view is familiar and can be summarized briefly. Taken as a whole, Marx’s writings provide an account of how the normal operation of a capitalist system of production leads to the political and economic subordination of workers as a class. Marx argued that this subordination is structural, that is, it grows out of the way that production is organized. That structure is characterized by the concentration of productive assets in the hands of capitalists who, based on their property, appropriate and invest a socially produced surplus in the form of profits. This makes them dominant at the workplace, where employers dictate the conditions of work to employees; in the market, where workers are forced to sell their labor power at less than the value of what it produces; and in the state, where accumulated wealth and social position give capitalists political power over workers. Moreover, Marx argued, as long as production remains organized in this fashion, the subordination is inevitable. If workers want to be free, they have to change the system.
Generally, I find this view compelling. I think that capitalist democracies are class systems and that political and economic power are concentrated in the hands of private firms and investors. Moreover, democracy, at least as Marx defined it—a society in which freely associating producers govern themselves in all aspects of social life—requires a fundamental change in the underlying mode of production. The power of employers at work, and that of business in politics, discourages self-determination in too many ways to allow for democracy in the strong sense.
Nonetheless, as Marx’s critics and many of his followers have noted, this view leaves students of reform with one very critical issue unresolved. In capitalist democracies workers enjoy legal rights to vote for and elect political representatives. Why cannot they use these rights to make the state autonomous, that is, capable of acting in the interests of workers and against the interests of business?
This was not a particularly important problem for Marx. Writing before the advent of full universal suffrage and the institutionalization of social democratic and labor parties, he focused on how conflicts between the bourgeoisie, aristocracy, and state bureaucracy shaped policy. There was little question that the “bourgeois” state served ruling-class interests. The issue for Marx was which interests. In Marx’s historical accounts, social reform is largely driven by conflicts between competing ruling classes. Since the bourgeoisie was the ascendant class in the mid-nineteenth century, reform ultimately served to maintain its interests: the rule of capital.
That Marx held this view is clear in his discussion of English factory legislation. Ostensibly a victory for social reformers and the working class, factory reforms were, according to Marx’s account, dictated by the logic of capitalist accumulation. Employers tended to so exploit workers that they imperiled the survival of the labor force that was the source of their profits. Therefore, Marx wrote, a state “ruled by capitalist and landlord” resorted to “forcibly limiting the working day by state regulations” in order to “curb the passion of capital for limitless draining of labor-power.” Because capitalists needed workers if they were to continue to appropriate surplus value, the state protected workers, even against the industrialists’ opposition to reform. Marx acknowledged the role that worker protest played in precipitating reform, but the protest was a background condition rather than a driving force.11
Lenin was forced to take social reform more seriously. The Bolsheviks were in competition with social democratic parties for the allegiance of workers, and he developed a more complete account of nonrevolutionary political strategies. For Lenin, the liberal democratic state was destined to serve capitalist interests by a multiplicity of factors. Its form, for example, precluded direct participation in decision making by workers; both parliament and the bureaucracy were distant organs hostile to popular control. The executive branch’s financial dependence on capitalists to fund the public debt further limited its autonomy. State bureaucrats themselves were either tied to capitalist interests financially or ideologically predisposed to favor them. Economic interests also dominated the political parties that organized the legislature. Finally, because the rule of law created a false impression of universal rights, it obscured the class nature of the state and made it difficult for workers to understand or act on their class interests. In fact, to Lenin, the democratic state was “the best possible political shell for capitalism.”12
Much of Lenin’s argument is to the point, particularly his emphasis on the role of direct participation, or the lack thereof, in determining the ends of state action, and the importance of the state’s economic dependence on private investors to fund the public debt. But Lenin’s commitment to discrediting his social democratic opponents led him to overstate his case. Most important, he treated all these factors as invariant, despite the fact that all can be influenced by working-class political action.
Recent work on the capitalist state and social reform has been much more successful with dealing with the contingent character of class rule. Comparative and historical research has demonstrated that capitalist states do act against the professed and “objective” interests of capitalists and that this occurs in large part because workers organize and are able to affect the balance of power between themselves and business. State theorists and political economists have taken these findings to heart and have developed more complex ideas about the relationships among the structures of production, political activity and organization, and public policy in capitalist democracies.
Two ideas in particular have helped illuminate the contingent character of business power. The first suggests that we view the capitalist state as “constrained,” rather than “determined,” by the structural organization of the political economy. The second suggests that we consider the conditions under which workers choose to consent to capitalism rather than challenge its basic socioeconomic institutions.
The idea of constraint suggests that the state is neither directly governed by business nor required by its location within the larger system or its form to serve only business interests. Instead, public officials are encouraged to act in this fashion by the incentives they face. If these incentives are changed, public officials can lead the state in different directions.
The constraints on the state are predominantly structural and are based in the double dependence of the state on the process of capitalist investment. First, the state’s ability to act in domestic or international affairs depends on its ability to raise revenues through taxation. This depends on a healthy economy, which in turn depends on the level of private investment. Second, because workers vote their pocketbooks, the political fortunes of elected leaders depend on the level of economic activity. When jobs and incomes are insecure, parties fail at elections and administrations fall. Thus, in order to maintain the state’s power and secure their own political fortunes, public officials seek to maintain “business confidence” in their administrations. Even if they are sympathetic to labor, they avoid policies that threaten capitalist profitability and choose policies that serve business interests.13
The focus on the conditions under which workers choose to consent to capitalism highlights a second face of business power and further illuminates its contingent character. According to this view, the economic structure of capitalist democracy encourages workers, like public officials, to act in ways that are compatible with the interests of business.
Most important, capitalist democracy discourages radical collective action by workers. It does this in three ways: first, the concentration of productive assets in private firms and investors leaves workers dependent on employers for jobs and income. Workers recognize that their economic interests depend on the prior satisfaction of business interests and “rationally” limit their demands to those things that are compatible with firm profitability. Second, the capitalist organization of the labor process creates and reinforces preexisting divisions among workers, including divisions based on skill, race, gender, and ethnicity. This divisiveness makes coordinated, solidaristic collective action difficult. Third, resource inequalities between workers and those who own and manage capitalist enterprises make it difficult for workers to pursue political activities of all sorts. Unequal access to free time and differences in financial resources and information make it hard for workers to establish the organizational preconditions for effective radical action. Repeated failures, or even the likelihood of failure, further encourage workers to confine their demands to more easily achieved ends.14
In these ways, the structure of capitalist democracy encourages workers to consent to class domination. Workers, calculating the costs and benefits of various forms of political and economic activity, choose political strategies that emphasize short-term material gaia, including job security, higher wages, shorter hours, and changes in the most immediate conditions of work. The economic insecurity of the wage earner, divisions among employees, and employer strategies to contain potential opposition make the costs and risks of more radical collective action too high.
Taken together, these efforts to clarify the contingent character of class rule have identified three critical variables that affect the ability of capitalist states to act in the interests of workers and against the interests of business: (1) the degree to which workers are organized and capable of acting as a class; (2) the degree to which the state is capable of independently affecting the flaw of capital to alternative uses; and (3) the degree to which public officials adopt regulatory programs that actively involve workers in the implementation of reforms.15
The idea of rational consent suggests that the political and economic strategies of workers also shape the state’s freedom to act for or against business. The existence of an independent party political force representing workers as a class, extensive unionization, centralization in the trade union movement, and the pursuit of radical political rather than short-term economic goals are likely to help free public officials from their dependence on capitalist investment. It follows that if the state is constrained by its structural location in the wider political economy, it can increase its ability to act against the expressed interests of business if it is able to loosen its economic dependence on capitalist investment. Finally, workers can be encouraged to demand more radical political changes if they are included in the implementation of public policy and decision making at the workplace.
These observations provide the framework for the analysis of social reform in this study. They suggest that whereas the limits of reform originate in capitalist economic structures, they are sustained only to the degree that political strategies fail to confront those structures, most important the private control of investment and the exclusion of workers from participation in the organization of work and the implementation of policy. To the extent that these structures are left in place by reformers, social policies that depend for their success on radical political action by workers, or on anticapitalist political action by public officials, are likely to fail.
Alternatively, reforms that increase public control over investment are likely simultaneously to increase the willingness of public officials to challenge business interests and the willingness of workers to choose more radical political strategies. Reforms that widen the scope of worker participation in the organization of work are also likely to encourage workers to act more radically by facilitating collective action. In sum, reforms of this kind widen the field for independent state action.
Whether independent state action follows, or finally succeeds, of course depends on a host of other factors. Public officials may have the opportunity to challenge the existing order but be committed to it ideologically. The costs of radical political action for workers may decrease substantially, but labor unions and worker parties can still choose not to respond affirmatively. Procapitalist ideologies may obscure, or devalue, the possibility of greater worker power and participation within the system. Or party leaders may fail to understand and respond to these opportunities. Nonetheless, the strategy of reform matters significantly in determining what social policy can or cannot accomplish.
Given this analysis, American liberalism appears particularly infirm as an approach to reform. As a rule, when reformers succeed, they tend to create public programs that rely on methods that concentrate and centralize authority in distant professionalized bureaucracies rather than extend public authority over investment or involve affected constituents actively in the implementation of policy. Without greater public control over investment, the ability of elected officials to take actions that threaten business confidence is sharply restricted. In the absence of institutions to facilitate worker participation in the governance of firms and citizen participation in a host of other basic economic decisions from plant location to community health services, regulatory agencies find it difficult to significantly alter the distribution of power and property in American capitalism.
The problem, however, is not simply one of bureaucratic organization. To the contrary, the weakness of the labor movement and its preferred political and economic strategies helps to reproduce liberalism in policy. Most workers are not organized and those that are do not belong to classwide organizations, either in industry or in politics. There is no central labor federation that speaks for the majority of American employees, no labor party to represent worker interests in politics. Nor, for the most part, does organized labor demand greater public control over capital accumulation. Rather, American unions have ceded control over production and investment to private firms and managers and, within this frame, sought economic security and higher standards of living. In fact, the American labor movement is single-mindedly “economistic” in its pursuit of short-term material gain and distinctive in the degree to which it eschews more radical political and economic changes.
The Political Economy of Workplace Regulation
The framework I have outlined can be applied directly to the problem of working conditions. It suggests that occupational safety and health policy will succeed only to the extent that it enables public officials to challenge those aspects of the economic system that make jobs unsafe and discourage private and public actions to improve working conditions.
Chapter 1 explores these issues in depth. There I suggest that in industrial capitalist societies, most accidents and diseases result from the decisions of private employers and private investors. Workers may contribute by acting in an unsafe manner, but they work in environments structured by the decisions of firms to invest in certain products and technologies and by employers’ decisions to organize work in certain ways. Hazard control rests on changing these decisions so that firms increase their investment in health and safety and workers participate actively in plant-level decision making over the conditions of work.
Capitalism tends to discourage both. Profit-seeking investment in competitive markets tends to discourage investment in health and safety. The capitalist organization of the labor process discourages worker participation in determining the conditions of work. Although both are essential to effective hazard control, both run counter to employer interests. Finally, the state’s dependence on private production discourages public officials from interfering with managerial prerogatives for fear of alienating employers and undermining business confidence. Chapter 2 illustrates how, in near-pristine form, these processes discouraged prevention in the United States before 1970.
These processes do not preclude the creation of regulatory mechanisms to reform the conditions of work. Under the right conditions, government may prove receptive to demands for workplace regulation. As Chapter 3 indicates, the combination of economic growth and social protest in the 1960s encouraged public officials to respond affirmatively to demands for federal intervention. Indeed, the passage of the OSH Act in 1970 over the concerted and vehement opposition of the business community confirms that the capitalist state can be receptive to worker demands.
Still, the theoretical observations outlined above suggest that successful reform remains problematic unless reformers and the labor movement directly address the constraints that circumscribe the independence of public officials and discourage workers from taking a more active role in determining the conditions of work. This did not happen here. Neither the act nor union strategies toward work took this approach.
Instead, the law and efforts to implement it have remained resolutely liberal and, thus, have failed to confront the impact of market capitalism on occupational safety and health. Rather than extend public authority over the economic processes that structure the workplace, or redefine the role of workers in determining the conditions of work, the law and efforts to implement it have relied on command-and-control regulation to limit worker exposure to hazardous work. Chapter 1 places this approach in perspective by comparing liberal forms of regulation in America to neocorporatist forms of regulation common in Europe. Based on that comparisoa it offers a preliminary theoretical assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of liberalism as an approach to the control of occupational hazards.
In some respects, the OSH Act did attempt to reshape the American approach to workplace regulation. Several provisions provide for worker participation in enforcement. One mechanism was created to involve employer and employee organizations in negotiations over standards. Taken as a whole, however, the act deepened rather than altered the state’s commitment to a liberal mode of reform. Rather than reorient the existing system, the state-level programs were federalized and command-and-control enforcement mechanisms were strengthened. Chapter 3 explains why Congress and the executive branch opted for this and not an alternative approach.
The general account of the capitalist state and social reform suggests that this approach to occupational safety and health should prove difficult to implement. The state’s inability to regulate investment leaves public officials vulnerable to declining business confidence and significantly increases employers’ influence over social policy. The failure to involve workers in enforcement deprives OSHA of the additional leverage that a mobilized workforce could exert on employers and in politics. As a result, the agency is likely to be subjected to enormous political pressure from business and from elected officials whom business groups hold responsible for the agency’s policies. Agency rulemaking and enforcement will become highly politicized. In this environment, the agency will make policy in response to short-term political forces rather than design and implement long-term hazard-control programs. Rational policymaking will suffer.
All of this has occurred, as Chapters 4 through 7 describe. After 1970, employers targeted by OSHA actions sought relief from the agency, Congress, and the White House. As economic conditions and profit margins declined in the 1970s, employers intensified their opposition to the agency. At the same time, economic instability made public officials sensitive to their demands. Worker rights to protection quickly became vulnerable to counterclaims based on the importance of economic growth and capital investment.
Presidents proved particularly sensitive to business demands. This was the result, in part, of White House sensitivity to organized pressure. But it also reflected presidential interest in sustaining business confidence in a time of economic crisis. The executive branch responded to both concerns by extending central control over the agency. The precise form and content of White House review reflected the changing balance of political forces in each administration. Nevertheless, a common trajectory is apparent in the efforts of Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan to increase executive oversight over OSHA and introduce economic criteria into the agency’s decision-making processes. As I indicate, these programs played an important part in shaping what OSHA could and could not do.
Many factors account for the success of business opposition to OSHA in the 1970s and 1980s. The ability of business to outspend organized labor in elections and to mount better-funded lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill clearly contributed. No doubt the conservative drift in the political climate made it easier for industry to be heard. But changes in political strategy were also critical. Chastened by a string of legislative defeats in the 1960s and early 1970s—particularly on air and water pollution, occupational safety and health, and consumer product safety—business groups mobilized in new ways. They built organizations that could represent their common class interests, and they rehabilitated their ideology to offer a new defense of their interests, based on the link between firms’ profits and society’s interest in economic growth. Eventually, the business lobby took back the initiative it had lost in the 1960s and forced the health and safety movement onto the defensive.
Union strategies also contributed to OSHA’s troubles. The labor movement lobbied for enforcement of the OSH Act but did not seek to mobilize workers in politics or at the workplace. Nor did it propose a new vision of work, or a democratic economy, that could link the interests of workers in workplace reform to the demands of the civil rights, environmental, consumer, and feminist movements for a safer, more egalitarian, more participatory society. Unions formed alliances with these groups, but, on the whole, organized labor continued to lobby in conventional forms, pressuring the agency for standards that protected particular groups of workers. As a result, the agency was forced to deal with a profoundly asymmetrical political environment in which the balance of power shifted toward employers.
Chapter 7 looks at how OSHA responded to these political forces. Organizational theory suggests that OSHA should have sought autonomy from political pressure and crafted its policies and internal decision-making processes to maximize its discretion and resources. In its early years it should have attempted to establish itself as a forceful actor in its environment by adopting strong rules and defending them. Subsequently, it should have sought to minimize conflict by adopting a low profile, courting the best-organized interest groups in its strategic environment.16
But politics, not organizational imperatives, was in command. Competing demands by organized labor and business, in combination with the White House review programs, so politicized the agency’s environment that it was never able to establish itself as an independent voice. Instead, its policies constantly changed as the balance of political power shifted from administration to administration and, in some cases, from year to year. Chapter 7 considers how these changes shaped OSHA’s approach to job safety and their impact on working conditions. As the theoretical analysis suggests, the agency was able to do little to improve worker safety and health. Instead, competing political demands led to inconsistent and often irrational policies. After 1980, business and White House pressures led to neartotal deregulation.
OSHA’s failures are well known, and there are numerous proposals to restructure the agency. The two most common approaches to regulatory reform are (1) a market-conservative proposal that argues for deregulation and greater reliance on employer discretion and the operation of labor markets; and (2) a neoliberal proposal that recommends centralized economic review of health and safety regulation to make standards and enforcement more compatible with the needs of economic growth and international competition.
Neither of these conventional proposals takes into account the structural and institutional factors considered here. Chapter 8 critically evaluates them according to the theory and evidence presented in this book. It also considers and argues for a third route to regulatory reform that is designed simultaneously to increase worker participation at work and increase public authority over employer decisions that directly affect investment in health and safety.
This third way does not simply recommend a stronger OSHA; it approaches the entire problem of regulating workplace hazards differently. It suggests that the state adopt policies that make it possible for workers to become less dependent on OSHA and more reliant on their own political and economic organizations to change the conditions of work. The state continues to play an important role, but the focus of public policy shifts from detailed standards and penalty-based inspections to creating state-enforced rights to participate in plant governance. This way also requires that labor strategies change. Unions must play a more active role at the national level in setting basic occupational safety and health policy. They must work to increase public control over investment in order to loosen the structural constraints on public officials. They must work to focus worker activity at the local level on the conditions of work. And they must build alliances with other movements interested in participatory approaches to economic decision making and policy implementation.
The Limits of Liberalism
Beyond the theory of social reform in capitalist states, and the analysis of occupational safety and health regulation, I intend this book to provide the foundations for a critical account of liberalism as a strategy of reform in America. As in the case of OSHA other Great Society programs combined new, quite radical rights with highly statist enforcement programs, including air and water pollution control, consumer protection, and civil rights. Thus we can consider what OSHA suggests about these more general trends.
Of course, there are limits to what can be learned from a single case. Theories cannot be validated or invalidated by one example. It is difficult to analyze an approach to reform on the basis of a single issue. And OSHA is distinctive in several respects: the act’s rights to health and safety are particularly expansive; most welfare state policies rest more heavily on government’s taxing and spending powers than on command-and-control regulation. But there are sound methodological reasons to endorse the case method. And the parallels between OSHA and the general trajectory of the Great Society are sufficiently strong to justify the effort.
OSHA’s critics agree; they also see the agency as emblematic of deeper dynamics in American politics. To conservatives, OSHA is probably the nation’s leading symbol of overregulation. Its history is a cautionary tale about what is wrong with liberal state intervention. Conservatives suggest that OSHA’s failure reflects a general tendency for bureaucratic agencies to fail to accomplish their legislatively set goals. Bureaucracies adopt policies that serve their organizational interests rather than solve social problems. As a result, rational policymaking suffers. In contrast, left liberals and radicals suggest that the history of workplace regulation illustrates how the political power of business in American politics frustrates reform.
The conclusion returns to these issues and suggests that the problems of liberalism in the case of OSHA are characteristic of the basic avenue taken to social reform in America. Specifically, I argue that liberalism is at once overly statist and insufficiently radical to solve the problems it confronts. As this study indicates, liberalism does not prevent people from demanding, presidents from endorsing, and Congress from adopting laws that promise to advantage workers and consumers and impose substantial costs and controls on firms. Liberalism does, however, build from a set of political and institutional assumptions that frustrate reform.
Two problems stand out. First, the state’s effort to correct market “failures” such as pollution or workplace hazards without using public authority to affect the levels and kinds of capital investment, the industrial structure, or the mix of jobs offered leaves these policies highly vulnerable to political opposition and market forces. In an unstable economic climate, social reform is likely to be held hostage to the demands of firms and investors, demands that preclude the restructuring of markets to serve worker or consumer interests.
Second, liberal forms of state intervention are rarely joined to participatory mechanisms that enable the people who are to be protected to protect themselves. Instead, by relying so heavily on direct state supervision of firms—in this instance on command-and-control regulation—policy encourages the affected groups to transfer responsibility to public officials, the same public officials who are likely to be so vulnerable to business opposition.
This approach makes sense in the American context. It reflects a cultural preference for the least intrusive forms of state intervention and the political reality that workers and consumers are already demobilized at the workplace and in their communities. Nonetheless, it does not address the political and economic realities of the problems it proposes to solve. Although it creates a more extensive state, it does not substantially increase the state’s effective power. In sum, liberalism fails to confront how capitalist democracy in general, and American capitalism in particular, discourage reform. It follows that any serious effort to remedy problems of this sort requires breaking with this reform strategy. Participation and increased public authority over economic processes are the preconditions for successful reform. The right to protection depends on greater public control over production. At the same time, state action should be used to facilitate self-organization by workers and consumers. Anything less radical is likely to fail.