Administration supporters suggest that free market institutions have been even more thoroughly discredited as they attempt to place on blame on the profit-pursuers at BP. They’re right that the history of this disaster proves that unregulated oil drilling remains a bad idea, but no one in our political discourse has ever called for giving the petro plutocrats a free hand. The oil industry faces formidably detailed federal and state rules at every stage of its operations and the governmental oversight will, if anything, only intensify. But President Obama himself made an important acknowledgment at his press conference of May 27th: that BP business interests and the public’s interests completely converged when it came to sealing off the gushing oil and minimizing its damage. Even without governmental pressure, the oil companies have every incentive to avoid such disasters and to try to limit their impact when (inevitably) they do occur.
That’s why Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s rhetoric is so unhelpful when he talks about “keeping our boot on the neck of the oil company.” The image he conveys not only brings to mind all the old imprecations about “jack-booted thugs” from the government, but also suggests a major corporation paralyzed by a boot “on its neck” at precisely the moment the public needs a powerful and supple response.
Sooner or later, private and public resources will come together to cap the leaking oil and to repair the appalling damage to the Gulf Coast. When that happens, experts will doubtless conclude that the devastation proved far less cataclysmic than first feared, and they will marvel at the recuperative powers of nature – just as they did with the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 21 years ago.
Meanwhile, Washington’s shaky response sends an unmistakable and unforgettable political message: that bureaucracies are by their very nature flawed and fallible, regardless of the party that occupies the positions of power. The events in the Gulf have done far more than leading the public to question the president’s competence. They should also encourage every thoughtful American to question his ideology, and reject his big government world view.