02 June 2010

Is Everyone Crazy?

OK, that's a little strong, but the whole oil spill thing is beginning to feel like a version of Marat/Sade, that is, the inmates are in charge of the show.

A few weeks ago, the conservative establishment was busy telling us that government was too big, that the president is a crypto-socialist, and cozying up to the Tea Party whose newest spokesman (Rand Paul) thinks that the president was unamerican to criticise BP. But now, the governor of Louisiana and other self proclaimed conservatives are demanding the president do something. Government is too big until I need it to be big. That they can be outraged by government inaction, which is exactly what they want, and shout with all the dudgeon of a 'woman scorned' is beyond hypocritical. It's delusional.

Meanwhile, on the left is the rising demand that government should have done something by now, but it is still waiting for a suitable object, namely, "what?" What can it do? Yes, this is a human made problem, but the result is something beyond simple fixes. Plugging the hole is a whole lot harder than digging it.

It's like a dam that has broken. Once it fails, the laws of nature and physics overwhelm any human intervention. Yes, it's that dramatic. Deep sea conditions are more daunting than outer space - pressure, cold, darkness, salt. There was never a lot of room for error. Failure was inevitable.

And everyone is asking how could this happen? As though this was some remote possibility. It was always possible, especially given the challenges of drilling this deep. I can assure you that no one, including the "nanny state" so beloved by some, ever thought this sort of endeavor was risk free. But hey, nothing is risk free. And if the libertarian views of some prevail, we will be see a rise in overall risk. That's the price of freedom, danger.

And the role of government is to govern the level of risk. Like a circuit breaker or a steam valve, government makes sure that a free society does not set itself on fire or blow up.

But where is the threshold when government intervenes? It varies, but it is never set at zero risk because that would mean no freedom at all. So there is always some risk. The challenges are around us all the time? What price protection from terrorism? Tapped phones? Body searches at airports? How can we prevent more automobile deaths? Lower speed limits? Raise the driving age?

In the case of the oil spill the question is how much risk can we are willing to bear to preserve our petroleum fueled society? It is not whether to have deep sea drilling, but whether to accept the risks of spills and pollution and terrorism as (part of the) the price required for living the way we do.

There is no free lunch. Our automobile dependent, petroleum fueled (from cars to cows to condos) society means oil spills and terrorism and obesity and pollution and so on. To think we live like this without risk or cost is the ultimate delusion.

And while denial is not just a river in Egypt, having the truth forced upon us like a beach full of tar may be what it takes to make us see what we have been denying for so long. I fear it will take far more than this. And that's what really scares me.

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