In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that began on April 20, the question has been asked in media both left and right: who’s to blame? From Time magazine to The Washington Independent to cable news, journalists seemed more obsessed about wondering who is responsible than reporting on the actual catastrophe.
In all fairness, many news outlets have properly dealt with the crisis while the issue of responsibility is not entirely without merit. But there are plenty of commentators and politicos who have been only too willing to use the example of the oil spill to push for further regulation of private businesses — President Barack Obama foremost among them.
There is little doubt that BP, as operator of the Deepwater Horizon platform, bears ultimate responsibility for cleaning up the mess it made. But as Michelle noted last week, the situation isn’t crystal clear. Government had regulations in place that were meant to prevent an ecological disaster of this scale. It can’t shift the blame entirely on BP without appearing disingenuous. “In fact,” according to Michelle, “to the extent that government takes on accountability and responsibility themselves they remove it from corporations like BP.”
Regulation evidently can’t prevent a disaster from occurring. Indeed, one has only to consider the state of the energy sector in the most heavily regulated state ever seen, the Soviet Union, to know that government is actually ill equipped at controlling an industry, let alone avoiding accidents.
Proponents of state intervention aren’t easily persuaded however. Unsurprisingly, in the face of corporate failure they argue in favor of more regulation, convinced as they are that just a few more laws and a little less freedom of enterprise will keep everyone safe. Eugene Joseph Dionne of The New Republic for instance complains about BP’s inability to plug the leak and contain the crisis before observing how easily supposed defenders of the free market call upon government to intervene when a private company blunders. “Then everyone starts talking like a socialist, presuming that the government can put things right.” Observe Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, a Republican.
In his defense, Dionne isn’t so convinced that government can be the answer to everything. But he does believe that “we have disempowered government and handed vast responsibilities over to a private sector that will never see protecting the public interest as its primary task.” With government so incapable and companies so indifferent though, one wonders whom they rather have in charge of cleaning up the mess.
Protecting the “public interest” isn’t the primary task of private businesses. Their primary task is to make money. But that is not to say that the private sector is reckless. Quite to the contrary. Multinationals like BP invest dearly in safety measures and protocols because they know that an oil spill like the one that happened in the Gulf of Mexico last April is not just a major disaster on itself, but a major disaster to the company as well.
Right now, no one likes BP. Some consumers have already began to boycott the company. And because it will have to foot the bill for the cleanup, BP can expect to lose millions if not billions of dollars in the years ahead. Cold and rational calculation of costs and benefits demands extraordinary precautions and prudence when drilling for oil 35,000 feet beneath the ocean’s surface. The more a company stands to lose from a mistake, the harder it will work to prevent one. The only thing government does when it interferes is open the door for lobbyists and cronyism which harms the “public interest” more than it serves it.