June 9, 2010 | Commentary on Energy and Environment

Obama Waves the Big Stick But Can't Stop the Oil Leaking

If the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico is ever going to be shut off, the US government is not going to do it. BP will. Of course, they made the mess, so they should clean it up. But it's not simply BP's responsibility to plug the leak. They're the only ones who physically can do it.

They employ some of the world's finest engineers, the best drillers, the most advanced ships, robots and computers, and they have decades of expertise. No government can match its resources. That doesn't mean BP is faultless. It seems obvious it's not. But fixing a hole in a pipe a mile under the ocean is a job for the experts. It's tough enough without the government muddling things up.

So far, Barack Obama administration's contribution to the crisis has been to tie up state and local authorities in bundles of red tape, and to threaten BP with criminal prosecution. That belated eagerness to wave around the big stick only complicates the job at hand. It's a sure sign that the administration is panicking, and is more interested in looking good than doing good.

It will be months before we get the full story on what caused the leak. But the initial reports about the government's role in failing to prevent it haven't been kind. In the US, off-shore drilling is regulated by the Minerals Management Service, which was the subject of a recent government report accusing its employees of passing the time at work by doing drugs, taking gifts from oil companies, and sending pornographic e-mails to each other.

When the oil began to flow, the leak seemed like a public relations gift to Obama and his big government agenda. It could be blamed on large, foreign, and therefore presumably evil corporations. It showed that oil is dirty stuff, which played into his desire to spend lots of the public's money on supposedly green energy. And because it happened off-shore, it gave the administration an excuse to clamp down on drilling, which its supporters hate.

But then a curious thing happened: the oil didn't stop. The White House thought it was getting a small leak, and it didn't unwrap that gift with much urgency. Instead, it got a big one.

Now it's fumbling to catch up. With our modern expectation that the government will be there to solve every problem, the longer the spill lasts, the more it comes to symbolise the administration's incompetence.

That's the problem with championing the idea that governments should solve all our problems. Sooner or later, reality comes along and proves they can't. And Obama has only himself to blame for his plunging popularity, because no one's done more in this generation to build up these unrealistic expectations than Obama himself.

A couple weeks ago, as I was catching a train in New Jersey, I saw an advert for a local school of government that frightened me. The ad urged applicants to study government so they can work for social change. Its entire premise was that the government exists to reach deep down into society and change you. Undoubtedly, the school's students and teachers sincerely believe that. So do millions of others.

That's what's at stake in the US now: the future of society as something that exists apart from government, of the American people as the ones who rule, of individuals as the real source of useful change.

When government co-opts civil society as the "third sector", as it did under Labour in Britain, it poisons that well. There is no doubt that the government can muddle things up, but it has enormous difficulty in changing them as it intends. And the more it tries, the worse it gets at its real job: administering a minimum body of law competently and efficiently. We have only begun to pay the bill for this
collectivisation of everyday life. Obama has indulged in a never-ending and failed series of stimulus bills. He's enormously expanded the government's role in health care. He's doing the same in education, and he wants to regulate the internet and control the climate.

Anyone who believes that the government can manage all of this, and the deep-reaching programme of social change it entails, should simply look at the Gulf. Governments are just not competent to do everything they pretend to do, and trying to do it has real costs.

The marshes of Louisiana are a mess, but the real disaster will come when the folly of the government's efforts to regulate our way to prosperity and freedom washes up in our lives.

Ted Bromund is a senior research fellow at the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, based at The Heritage Foundation

About the Author

Theodore R. Bromund, Ph.D. Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: Energy and Environment

First appeared in Yorkshire Post