Kevin Carson has a new piece up at the Center for a Stateless Society, In a Truly Free Market, BP Would Be Toast, which argues that without federal regulation limiting liability BP would not only be facing liabilities that “stack up pretty tall against BP’s total equity,” but also that in a genuinely free market the demands of insurers would force companies like BP to take adequate precautions.
Kevin is absolutely right in saying that the Gulf spill is not the product of an “unregulated market.” It’s one of the great wonders of the modern world that, with news of the latest attempt to tweak the economy by this or that incentive a daily staple, the phrase “unregulated economy” still exists in the language. Of course, in this regard, the shenanigans of the the government look a lot like the daily shenanigans of the market. Clearly, an unhealthy fusion has taken place, but it’s hard to decide whether it’s more troubling that the market has been governmentalized or that the government is on the market. In any event, if we are going to include that “unregulated market” among the possible alternatives to the present debacle, it’s probably only fair to also consider the possibility of an “unmarketed regulation.” If it is obvious that the current economy is something of a botched job with regard to freedom, it should be equally obvious that the regulatory state is not fulfilling its functions in any coherent manner. If “the system is working” through this particular sort of malfunction, then that “system” is not government per se, but the bastard love-child of corrupt government and corrupt market, which is nothing other than the dominant present form of privilege.
I would like to think that in a “truly free market” it would indeed be easier to sue the pants off those who recklessly endanger the lives and livelihood of others. I would hope that in such an economy, where “all economic actors do business on their own nickel,” the process of accumulating enough nickles to dig a deepwater well would build in a certain amount of responsibility, long before we got to the stage of insuring the thing. But the problem with markets is that there are many kinds of value and interest which have a hard to finding representation. After all, sea turtles and brown pelicans don’t get any more of a vote in the market than they do in elections or campaign contributions. Private property conventions tend to establish a separation of interests not reflected in, or respected by, the circulatory systems of the biosphere—and while there are, arguably, very good reasons to construct a certain kind of property-privilege around each and every human subject, we play a dangerous game when we mistake the legal and/or conventional systems of property for a map of our actual degree of interdependence on one another and on non-human nature.
As I read western intellectual history, the revolutionary trend is more and more towards the recognition of universal interconnectedness as an objective condition, and the checkered career of modern individualism has been determined by the fact that it is not immediately clear how we should deal with our undeniable experience of separate being, in the face of a whole lot of pretty persuasive evidence that the human subject is not, objectively, much more than a calm pool in the flow of everything everywhere. Faced with this basic and very thorny problem, the individual has had to shrink considerably, expand just as dramatically, or find some way to split the difference. Unfortunately, as often as not, we’ve remained sort of betwixt and between solutions to the dilemma, either stuck with pretty wishy-washy non-solutions or turning defiant. The defiance of ecological concerns has had a helpful, if hapless, ally in various sorts of naive anti-humanisms and primitivisms, in shallow “environmentalism,” and in the tendency of half-baked attempts at environmental legislation to regulatory capture. Those who deny the last several centuries of natural science point to the failure to sell adequate regulation to the oil companies, and pretend that the failure of junk legislation is the vindication of their junk science. When they want to sway the base, they appeal to false populism and junk religion. Faced with the need to confront all the consequences of our advancing knowledge of the universe—both those that emphasize our individuality and those that pull in a very different direction—we’re seeing denials of reality that would make flat-earth enthusiasts blush. Now, I don’t expect everyone to be convinced of the need for a “gift economy of property,” or to accept the sort of ecological ethics that I think are implied by pretty much all the best thought of the last couple of hundred years. But I do think that anyone who believes the market alone, or government alone, or any combination of market and government will solve he problems posed by the Deepwater Horizon spill—without there first being a profound examination of the problems in precisely ecological terms, and with all the sacred cows of both market and government banished to other pastures—probably needs to go back to the drawing board.
To be frank, the problem with something like Lew Rockwell’s anti-environmentalism is that it is quite simply stupid to act like ecosystems are some sort of left-wing plot. You can’t be a very useful “hero” for human liberty if you decide you “hate” the basic life support system of the human race. The problem with the back and forth around Rockwell’s stupid statements is that it’s quite clear that the “libertarian” defenders are absolutely married to their dubious principles, no matter how far they may be removed from reality.
For those who are not in a “til death do us part” relation with a particular vision of private property, the disaster (of still unknown and largely unknowable proportions) that has started in the Gulf poses a lot of hard questions about how a free and sustainable society can function—and it poses them in a way that is hard to ignore. Personally, I don’t think there are any easy points to be scored for free markets, free governments, or their lack. All free institutions will be as wise and good—or foolish and bad—as the individuals that make them up and the internal connections that they forge. We’re obviously faced with broken markets and corrupt regulatory regimes at the moment, but there wouldn’t be much improvement from free-but-dumb alternatives. There’s no substitute, when it comes to engaging ecological concerns, for ecological thinking, and there are plenty of indications that we are collectively resisting that engagement with every means available to us. It seems to me that there are promising routes toward a solution beginning from virtually all of the usual anarchist starting points. In the next couple of issues of The Mutualist, I’ll be looking at how the most expansive sorts of anarchist egoism and the most collectivist sorts of anarchist communism ultimately point to the need of at least some “two-gun,” non-simplist, and essentially ecological balancing act.