Encouraging Roadblocks in the War on Oil

As Robert Higgs notes, a moratorium on deep-sea drilling, or an even more significant and general governmental effort to stop oil exploration, would be disastrous for the economy. Some commentators have referred to the Gulf Coast oil disaster as the environmentalists’ 9/11—qqqa crisis that would enable the federal government to seize upon public hysteria and expand its own power immensely, to the extreme detriment of American wealth and liberty.

Thankfully, it is shaping up to be somewhat more difficult for the administration to capitalize on this disaster than it was for the last and current administrations to exploit terrorism. This week, there was the encouraging instance of a judge striking down Obama’s executive decree that deep-sea drilling be halted for half a year, a decision promptly appealed by the administration. Even much more encouraging in the long run, however, is public opinion. A Wall Street-Journal/NBC poll shows half of Americans disapproving of the administration’s response to the spill. What’s more, a Reuters poll reveals that a majority of Americans still favor offshore drilling, and while the vast majority blame BP for the spill, an albeit smaller vast majority of 69% also blame the federal government.

As Higgs and others have shown, a crucial factor in the government’s ability to manipulate crises to the benefit of state power is the role of public opinion. Because Americans were not as ideologically collectivist in the 1890s as they were in the 1930s, the government was not able to use the 1890s depression as an excuse to erect nearly as much government as was built up in response to the 1929 stock market crash. (Of course, many Americans wanted an expansive government in the 1890s, but the ideological devotion to limited government was so pervasive it was even deeply apparent in President Grover Cleveland’s administration, which refused to intervene much.)

Similarly, after 9/11, the government has tested the limits of public tolerance for war and restrictions on civil liberties, and has expanded its power in approximate proportion to what the American people would tolerate. There was no mass roundup of all American Muslims, for example, as there was of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Most Americans would not accept it. But they would accept erosions of the 4th amendment, torture, detention without trial of terror suspects, and aggressive war. Even in foreign policy, however, Americans are much more squeamish about indiscriminate bombing than they were in World War II and the Cold War, which limits the government’s potential to kill civilians abroad (although many of us would say those limits are still far, far too generous toward the warfare state).

On the other hand, in the realm of environmentalism, while this movement has pervaded American culture quite dramatically in just the last two decades, it has not come to dominate the American mindset quite as much as the warfare mentality or the general entitlement mentality of the welfare state. Americans seem to recognize, especially in a time of economic hardship, that we cannot afford to put abstractions about the goodness of Mother Earth or the well-being of fish and bugs above the necessity that human beings thrive with a modern standard of life. Of course, this includes having a clean environment—no one disputes that. Everyone acknowledges this spill is a great travesty, that gross pollution is a real threat to property and human life, that even focusing on the well-being of the plants, animals and water, we can only look upon this calamity with horror. But at the same time, most Americans are primarily concerned with how this will affect people—the fishermen whose vocation has been uprooted, the suffering tourism industry, the locals who have had their environment soiled, the workers who have died during the accident and cleanup. Most of us are concerned with the human side of the story, and thus we are skeptical of any “solution” that will make the lives of the same people and other people all the more difficult.

The secular religion of environmentalism, explored seriously in Robert H. Nelson’s The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion Versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, has indeed won over in the schools, in higher academia, in the mainstream press, and the rhetoric and program of the Democratic Party as well as most “moderate” leaders of the Republican Party. But it has yet to conquer America. Americans are not willing to reverse the Industrial Revolution for the utopian schemes of the green central planners. They are willing to humor all too much in the crusade against “climate change,” but they are still sufficiently jealous of their commercial liberties and economic well-being so as to question the extreme proposals and edicts coming from the White House. Even candidate Obama was forced to concede the efficacy and appropriateness of coal in ways that alienated the radical environmentalists. And even after the greatest environmental disaster in American memory, the people draw a line in the sand. They don’t trust BP, but they also don’t trust the federal government, which has long been tied to the hip of this corporation through the military-industrial complex, and considering BP’s conspicuous championing of Cap and Trade, a green corporatist sham to reorganize and indeed regiment American economic life. So do the American people, even some on the left, recognize that more regulation and more government are not the clear-cut answers to the disaster in the Gulf. If only such American distrust of power translated into the realm of warmaking, hundreds of thousands of people might be alive right now who were vanquished in the fog of U.S. wars in this decade.

With the discrediting of and increasing suspicion toward the climate change alarmists and now this failure (however fleeting) of the administration to respond to the BP oil spill with the full-blown crusade against oil-drilling and industry that at least some in the White House are probably pushing for, we have some reasons to hope that the U.S. will not react as hysterically as it has to crises in the past. Also encouraging is the general distrust of Washington, which has not abated, despite this disaster. The environmentalists probably saw this as a great crisis, which could not go to waste, but should instead be recycled into the makings of a Green New World. Fortunately for the rest of us, the undeniable tragedy of the oil spill will not be compounded with quite the economic destruction they were threatening, at least for now.

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