The BP Oil Spill produced throughout the echo chamber of the American left a familiar narrative featuring some nefarious corporation jeopardizing the public interest accompanied by hints of lax regulatory supervision all leading to the conclusion that, once again, what is vitally needed is beefed-up progressive government riding to the rescue to curb the excesses of unbridled free market capitalism.
Libertarian Sheldon Richman, in the Freeman, explains that the reality of the current situation is far more complex.
[T]his is not just a simple matter of regulation. More fundamentally it’s a matter of ownership. The government has proclaimed itself the owner of the offshore positions where oil companies drill. In a free market those positions would be homesteaded and managed privately with full liability. In the absence of a free market and private property, built-in incentives that protect the public are diminished if not eliminated. Bureaucrats and “political capitalists” are not as reliable as companies facing bankruptcy in a fully freed market. ...
Negligent or not, BP is a player in a corporatist system that for generations has featured a close relationship between government and major business firms. (It wouldn’t have surprised Adam Smith.) Prominent companies have always been influential at all levels of government — and no industry more so than oil, which has long been a top concern of the national policy elite, most particularly the foreign-policy establishment. When state and federal governments failed in the 1920s to put a lid on unruly competition and low prices through wellhead production quotas (prorationing), the oil companies turned to Franklin Roosevelt and the federal government, winning the cartelizing Petroleum Code, significant parts of which were revived after the National Recovery Administration was declared unconstitutional. In the 1950s, when cheap imports depressed prices, the national government imposed quotas on foreign oil. Venezuela was the chief target at the time. (In 1960 OPEC, a “cartel to confront a cartel,” was founded.) Republican or Democratic, energy policy is not made without oil industry input.
In this context there’s less to the contrast between government regulation and corporate self-regulation than meets the eye. Self-regulation in a corporate state does not constitute the free market. When companies are sheltered in any substantial way from the competitive market’s disciplinary forces, incentives turn perverse. Moreover, “state capitalism” and the corporate form – with its agency problem – can produce the temptation to cut costs imprudently in order to make the next quarterly report look attractive to shareholders.
“Putting profits before people” is a feature of state, or crony, capitalism not the free market.