I think right now every oil company in the world says, I don’t want to pay $100 million a day to cut corners on drilling a well. And that’s where I believe the market system works. Nobody’s got more to lose in this deal than BP.
--Haley Barbour, Governor of Mississippi
You're not wrong Walter. You're just an asshole.
I'm not the first one to write about Governor Barbour's view that the calamity currently in progress right off the coast of the state he governs is nothing more complicated than a correction of the free market. Jed Lewison and thereisnospoon already did their own takedowns of Governor Barbour. Jed focused on a very simple aspect: if Governor Barbour were entirely correct about the consequences of catastrophe being so severe that oil multi-nationals would now think twice before playing fast and loose with proper precautions, then this situation would never have arisen in the first place. After all, this is not the first offshore drilling rig incident, and it's not likely to be the last. thereisnospoon's approach was slightly different: the way he figured it, it's entirely possible that Haley Barbour could be completely correct. The price that BP will pay for its lack of vision may yet be so high that no transnational oil company will ever make a similar mistake again--but in Haley Barbour's mind, everything else is mere collateral damage on the way to the the real objective of refining the free market by teaching BP a lesson. That's a good start. But I'd like to give this idea a slightly different spin:
You're not wrong, Haley. You're just an asshole.
Let's be clear: we should be doing everything we can to make sure we never have to drill for oil a mile under the ocean. But given the fact that it's happening, one simple fact stands out: from everything we've learned, this calamity could have been easily prevented with the standard modicum of industry precaution. The workers on the rig did not need to die in a fiery explosion. Hundreds of endangered sea turtles did not need to be burned alive in the cleanup effort (if you can legitimately call it that). An entire ecosystem did not have to be ruined. An entire way of life along the gulf coast did not need to be shattered.
But instead of focusing on the horror that lies before us and how anything like it across any industry can be prevented before it happens, Haley Barbour and his fellow free market supremacists are apparently incapable of seeing tragedy in any other context outside of cost. To them, all this needless death and wanton destruction is nothing but another brushstroke on the well-polished manicure of Adam Smith's unseen hand.
This worldview isn't just misguided; it is, in fact, sociopathic. At a smaller scale, this ethic of corporate Darwinism does indeed serve to refine business practices and ensure the survival of the fittest: businesses can fail through a series of bad decisions, or a competitor might develop a new "killer app" that completely changes the marketplace. Such is the nature of the business life cycle. Or at least, that's the theory.
And if the free marketplace existed in a vacuum, then this ethic would not be so problematic. But it doesn't. The stakes now are far too high. One company's "bad business decision" is now capable of wrecking the entire world economy. Another company's "oversight failure" in one rig is capable of triggering an unparalleled environmental disaster that threatens to destroy an entire way of life.
But despite the massive shared consequences that could follow the failure of a mere few at the top of any number of huge multinational companies, the cadre of free market supremacists, the acolytes of Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand, continue to insist that regulation--in other words, external preemptive action to prevent disasters before they happen--is counterproductive. Even in the wake of the worst financial crisis since the great depression, the usual suspects dug in their heels and fought tooth and nail against any efforts to restore sanity to Wall Street. Even after BP's corner-cutting created an epic calamity, the Governor of one of the states most affected continues to insist that the free market has absolutely no problem policing itself.
All of which leaves one very important question: how high do the stakes have to go before the ideology of free market supremacy must finally take a knee before the obviousness of the common good?
I'd like to propose a hypothetical for Governor Barbour. Let's say that a private company were using a Large Hadron Collider to try to develop, say, a fusion reactor. Now, the worry about Large Hadron Colliders is, of course, that under certain very unlikely circumstances, they could create a black hole that could swallow the earth into an infinitesimal point of roughly infinite gravity. Would Governor Barbour be in favor of heavily regulating that reactor, or would he be content to let the free market take its course? After all, in the event of a disaster, nobody would have more to lose than the reactor operators.
Except for everyone else sucked into another dimension. But this is business, so who cares about them?