Less government is what got us in trouble

The oil spill continues to fester. Apparently the government made some errors that facilitated the oil explosion and leak in the Gulf. It gave out permits it should not have given and it failed to watch closely enough to enforce safety rules. Some people will mindlessly use those errors as an attack on government, as the basis for saying we need less government, not more.

But that’s exactly what they got in the Gulf. It was a private driller’s paradise – no government, no regulation, just do whatever you pleased; nothing to stand in the way of innovation, production and cheap oil.

Except of course that the problem was that we had no government, no government to police the rules of the road, no government to represent the interests of everyone except the oilmen, no government to protect the Gulf and all the people whose livelihoods depended on the waters of the Gulf – if indeed the damage is restricted to the Gulf.

It seems to be a well kept secret but not all businessmen want an unregulated marketplace. For some businessmen, lack of regulation means that their competitors are free to degrade quality and safety. What’s worse, when competitors advance their own firms by cutting protection for our safety, those who want to protect the rest of us may be driven out of the business by those cheaper competitors, a clear and common example of Gresham’s Law – the bad drives out the good. So responsible businessmen actually seek regulation that sets a floor under everyone so that they can produce the quality products they want to produce, or produce the oil in an environmentally safer way.

I can just hear those fake know-it-alls claiming that people can choose what they want to pay for. But who got to choose the oil spill in the Gulf? And even if you could choose, knowledge is costly – it takes time to find out about the dangers we face and more time to find out how our market choices can allow us to avoid it – which companies are printing the mercury content of their fish, for example?

And if you are among the lucky one’s who make the time to get some of the information we need to live more safely, why should each of us have to spend that time when it would be much more efficient for one group of trained professionals to spend the time learning much more than any of us could individually and regulate what would otherwise be dangerous products or put the information in front of us. In other words, economically, yes, according to the rules of Adam Smith, government can be a very efficient way to solve problems.

Except for the folks with blinders on their eyes and microphones at their lips. What we need is better government, not government abdication. Oh and for all those who would be inclined to quote Jefferson, he thought so too. That’s why he was involved at the founding.



Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He is also President of the Capital Region Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union and served in the US Peace Corps in Iran. This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 22, 2010.


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