Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Coal mine tragedy: Sometimes tougher government oversight looks better in hindsight


I listened to Paul W. Smith’s show http://bit.ly/cDzJqJ on WJR Radio this morning. Smith (pictured) is a strong advocate for smaller government and less regulation. He has guest hosted for conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh. This morning he spoke of Massey Energy, owner of the West Virginia coal mine where at least 25 miners died earlier this week after an explosion.

Curiously, he seemed in agreement with a guest who suggested it was a travesty that Massey was allowed to continue business as usual despite repeated fines and safety violations like those chronicled in this NY Times article: http://nyti.ms/dd8sor

But what would Smith’s reaction have been if environmental groups, unions or workplace safety advocates tried shutting the mine down earlier this month? My guess it would have been a theme of “fringe nutcases and government bureaucrats meddle in the free market, threaten the jobs of American workers and raise our energy prices.”

Sometimes the concept of more aggressive government regulation looks better in hindsight. In fact, Market Watch already suggests that the mine tragedy will result in tougher regulations nationwide: http://bit.ly/clsfea

There’s a balance to be struck between necessary regulation and the free market. Critical thinking on how to achieve that balance doesn’t play well as a knee-jerk response to a tragedy. Nor does it have a place in a political climate where nuance is punished, compromise is sin, and angry “all or nothing” philosophies are the order of the day.

Such is the case for many of Michigan’s elected officials. At the State Capitol, there is a reliable core of lawmakers whose loathing for environmental regulators – primarily the state’s Department of Natural Resources and the Environment – is palpable. They are unwilling to do the work necessary to distinguish good laws from bad, or reasonable enforcement from unreasonable. For them, any environmental regulation is bad. And any enforcement action is heavy-handed.

Sometimes stronger rules or more zealous enforcement by government regulators are not necessary.

As recent events demonstrate, sometimes they are.

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