Failing under pressure

Failing under pressure

Robert E. Brooks

There is a rather grim irony to the fact that for the past eight weeks, as I write, oil has been flowing from a well 35,000 feet below the surface of the Earth (of which 4,100 feet is water), furiously, with no apparent end. Think of how much oil is there. Think of the pressure that’s forcing that crude from the depths.

This isn’t the pressure we’ve been hearing and reading about. The story we’re following is about the pressure our government leaders are, or should be, exerting on BP to stop the oil flow, and the pressure on those elected officials to clear themselves of any responsibility and to preserve their own agendas. There is something astounding about the vastness of the oil resources there, and something encouraging about the ingenuity of human beings to develop and build on such resources, but we’re concentrating on the failure, and the need for punishment, and the attempt to seize control.

With the perfect vision that comes from hindsight, it’s obvious that the maturation of the global economy would lead governments to become more reactionary, authoritative, and even aggressive in their efforts to maintain their relevance. But, now that we need to encourage economic progress generally, and to resolve various particular social and economic problems, we’re limited by all the compromises we’ve made in our progress to this point.

In free markets, governments stand aside. Suppliers promote ideas and abilities to available clients, and buyers locate the resources and products that suit them. The problem of one becomes the opportunity of another, to the benefit of both. They take risks, of course, but these are understood as the cost of progress. As the global economy grew larger and freer in recent decades, individual and commercial interests frequently proved more creative and effective than governments. That’s because their success are measured by economic and intellectual progress, not authority.

But to governments, authority is the only measure of success. The innumerable efforts by local and national governments to initiate or coordinate commercial activities can be recognized now as strategies to enhance governments’ authority. Officials applaud their own achievements at fostering economic progress, and soothe the public’s concerns about simmering problems (affordable energy, for example), while urging us toward some particular agenda that in time is revealed as a new government prerogative.

We went along with it: businesses welcomed the tax breaks on their operations and the development grants on their new projects; employers and workers alike were glad to have the government protect them from the risks of the global market. We accepted this, because we wanted progress.

All of the favors and deals just seemed strategic or constructive, as long as everyone got something. The risks were mostly theoretical as long as the market expanded and the opportunities grew. Now, under pressure, the accumulated power is the only thing left, and holding on to it is the only strategy. The government gets the advantages, and we’re stuck with the responsibility.

So, we have the spectacle of the U.S. government seeking extraordinary means to keep a global corporation from undermining its authority. It’s not enough to make BP pay the cost of fixing the leak and cleaning up the spill, as it should do. The company has to be officially disgraced, too — but carefully, so that BP doesn’t fail; that would be a loss of government control. The crisis has to be protracted in order to underscore the government’s authority.

Opportunities? Oh, yes. The search for oil more than a mile under the ocean was an opportunity once. Finding it there and devising the means to access it served a need. And, once the project failed a new opportunity emerged, to solve it, and to advance our prospects for growth and progress.

But we’re failing under pressure because we’re conceding these opportunities, unwilling or incapable of challenging the accepted authority, which risks more by losing control than it gains from solving the problem.

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