The Gulf of Mexico oil spill has claimed another casualty. No, not another oil-sloshed fish washed up on the stained sand of a Louisiana shore. The latest life suffocated in the inky blackness of BP's gusher is small-government conservatism.
At least that's what the progressive literati are saying. Thomas Frank of the Wall Street Journal spent a recent column giving a merry tour of Republican and Tea Party hypocrisy. How could those who once condemned the creep of the federal government turn around and denounce Barack Obama for not intervening more to plug the spill? Frank concluded, "The catastrophe is too great to brush it off with the usual laissez-faire scholasticism. So the great debate must wait. We are all liberals for the duration."
His point about hypocrisy is very fair. But Frank gets it wrong if he thinks libertarianism is in a coma until the leak gets plugged. If anything, BP's ugly oil platform affirms suspicions about the world that cranky classical liberals have always had.
I'll admit I'm a bit of a hypocrite. I castigate progressives for dividing the world into stereotypical groups -- the rich, the poor, the people, the powerful, etc. -- and then drawing sweeping conclusions about each one. But I, along with most other small-government types, often indulge the in the same mental laziness. Among my stereotypes: government workers are lazy and ineffective; corporations are avaricious and necessary; and politicians are self-serving and corrupt.
I've been watching the oil spill closely for the past month. Check, check, and check.
The government's bumbling over the spill is obvious. Virtually no action was taken the first two weeks, which earned Obama criticism even from the New York Times. Early on in the crisis, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal requested 5 million feet of boom line from the federal government to protect his state's coastline. To this day, he's only received 800,000 feet.
The feds' primary contribution to solving the crisis so far has been to dispatch bureaucrats in windbreakers to the Gulf Coast to stand around peering at the oil through binoculars. Pictures proudly displayed on the EPA's website of agency Administrator Lisa Jackson standing on a Gulf jetty wearing a baseball cap don't really inspire confidence. (They've since been removed.) Then again, what else can she do? Admiral Thad Allen admitted that the federal government, powered by a $3.8 trillion budget, doesn't have the equipment necessary to cap the spill.
Then there's the Minerals Management Service. The trusty civil servants in charge of regulating BP's oil platforms quickly turned the MMS into a wretched hive of scum and villainy. MMS bureaucrats spent the last decade sleeping with oil company employees and then allowing them to fill out their own safety evaluation forms. Progressives maintain that this only happened because George W. Bush was in charge. If only Barack Obama had sat in the Oval Office eight years sooner, they reason, the MMS would have been a shining model of regulatory efficiency. But as compared to what? The Department of Agriculture? The DMV?
Corporations played their role perfectly as well. BP cozied up to the MMS and repeatedly received exemptions from environmental inspections that might have prevented the spill. One of those exemptions was granted in April 2009, three months after nefarious oil baron George W. Bush left office.
BP also lobbied the federal government relentlessly, spending $19.5 million since January 2009 alone. Contrary to progressive campfire stories, they weren't trying to buy deregulation. As the Washington Examiner reported, BP lobbied for the stimulus bill, Wall Street bailouts, green energy subsidies, and, most notably, cap-and-trade. The oil giant wasn't trying to snooker incompetent government bureaucrats into deregulating the market. They were trying to snooker incompetent government bureaucrats into posting more red tape that would tangle the competition and allow BP to profit.
Timothy Carney, the Examiner reporter who unearthed BP's lobbying records, has been documenting this for years. Corporate predators use hapless government regulators to enhance their bottom line. Think of the smart girl in high school who dated the dumb jock because he was popular and had a nice car. I doubt a single libertarian was floored when they heard that BP and the MMS were in cahoots. It's the way the world works.
As I said, corporations are greedy but necessary. The Gulf spill is a tragedy and perhaps even a crime. But what precisely is the alternative? Oil accounts for more than 40% of America's total energy demands and 99% of fuel used in cars, according to the Department of Energy. Progressives are working themselves into a lather at oil companies. But there's something hypocritical to the point of being vile about Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann verbally assaulting oil companies from technologically decadent TV studios illuminated by gigawatt klieg lights. It's a hypocrisy impossible to evade unless you hammer together a Robinson Crusoe-style treehouse and hunt for your dinner. Maybe oil companies are a little evil. But they're also completely, utterly, wonderfully life-sustaining.
That leaves my third libertarian stereotype, the crookedness of politicians, which scarcely needs explaining. According to a senior White House aide, Obama was informed in April that oil would likely keep gushing through August until a relief well was drilled. Instead of relaying this to the American people, the president spent his time doing political ballet, trying to shift the target of populist rage from his administration to BP. Thus the government was "keeping its boot on the neck" of BP, Obama was yelling in meetings to "Plug the damn hole!" and the president was meeting with his advisors to figure out "whose ass to kick."
Again, politicians are self-serving and corrupt. But as with any rule, I'm willing to entertain an exception. If Chris Christie was president when the oil rig blew, his anger wouldn't be staged and comical; it would be very real. And a steady stream of heads would be rolling down the Beltway right now. It'd be enough to make jaded libertarians everywhere smile, if only for a moment.
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