Lights Out For Civilization?

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The environmentalists and price controllers who shut out the lights in California have wrought untold amounts of economic wreckage. But at least California’s woes serve to remind us of just how fragile civilization is. Our economic well-being is far too important to let these lunatics ever have control over essential resources again.

The heroic Thomas Edison was never a huge fan of government, but wouldn’t he be aghast today to find that a full-fledged movement was conspiring to restrict people’s access to his great invention of 1878? He was right in thinking that the lightbulb would change the history of the world and bring massive improvements in human welfare. Imagine how much he would loathe those who seek to erect barriers against using it.

It’s been said that only capitalist economies can afford to breed movements that set out to deliberately destroy economic development. Throughout most of human history, people were too busy beating back famine, disease and poverty to fret about the supposed evils of consumerism or overindulgence in energy.

In a rich society, however, politicians indulge the regulators because wealth seems so plentiful. They forget that wealth is a fragile thing. It can be smashed by policies that curb innovation and investment. Once these policies are adopted, everything can seem to be clicking along normally and then, suddenly — wham! — there are blackouts and you are back to the dark ages.

And in a market economy, the effects of these kinds of interventions are impossible to isolate. Here in Alabama, everyone is hopping mad about his heating bill, but few know who is to blame. Many denounce the producers themselves. But the environmentalists have for years extolled the glories of natural gas while attacking coal and nuclear power. It’s hardly a wonder that we have shortages today. It is entirely man-made — or green-made, in any case.

Even the Department of Energy attributes soaring prices to a shortage of supply and growing demand as industry and electric utilities are forced to shift more and more to “cleaner burning” natural gas. Just as the Clintons trashed the White House on their way out, they trashed the entire country’s ability to provide for its own energy needs. As Gordon Prather has pointed out, the administration cooperated with every anti-energy nutcase out there precisely to curb supplies.

After years of letting the greens dictate energy policy, Bush is on the right track in wanting to allow more exploration and production of energy. He wants drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and to permit exemptions to Clinton’s profligate “clean air” regulations so that older plants can chip in to keep civilization going.

Notice that his proposals (so far) do not depend on spending money or government programs. He is only proposing that private enterprise and localities be permitted to do what they otherwise would do in the absence of the federal government. But Bush inherits an energy policy designed by left-wing eggheads who know nothing about economics and care nothing about economic development. He’s got to do more, much more, to reverse policy trends of recent years that have brought us to the brink of calamity.

Bush should demand the full loaf: a complete repeal of the 1990 Clean Air Amendments (even if his dad was the one who approved them). These regulations have caused prices to rise along with the costs of doing business and saddled every local government and power producer with intolerable levels of federal supervision. If, at the same time, restrictions were lifted on nuclear power, the result would be cleaner air in the long run, and, far more importantly, lower prices and plentiful supplies of electricity.

Another step in the right direction would be to jettison the view that somehow we need to be less dependent on foreign oil. This language is just a guise for protectionism. Who cares where it comes from, so long as we get it? We are not in a war with anyone (nor should we aspire to be). The war with Iraq was 10 years ago, so it’s long past time that we opened up full trade relations. Maybe Saddam will stop acting like we are the enemy when we stop behaving like the enemy. Do we really need to make the case for free trade to Republicans?

There are thousands of energy firms and entrepreneurs just waiting to make a buck by providing us what we all want: lots of electricity and natural gas at extremely cheap prices. Who is preventing it? Environmentalists and central planners who are dead set on preventing us from enjoying the fruits of economic development.

If you know an environmentalist, tell him that if he likes barbarism so much, to turn off the electricity in his home and recycle his own waste. But leave the rest of us alone to enjoy the fruits of a capitalist society.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. He also edits a daily news site, LewRockwell.com.

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