It has been painful to watch the spreading disaster along the Gulf Coast in recent weeks.
The blowout of the British Petroleum well and the resulting oil spill has had tragic consequences already, and there is no way of knowing when it will end. Fishermen are losing this year's season, and worse, may be facing the end of their industry and with it their way of life. The same is true of those who make their living from tourism. Eleven people lost it all when the drilling platform blew up, leaving their families forever changed.
Wildlife has suffered, too. Habitat for pelicans and other birds may be permanently damaged, and unlike humans, pelicans can't choose another way of life. They are pretty much stuck with their instincts, and have no way of knowing how to deal with the oil that is killing them.
Despite the tragedy, one facet of this situation is, if not funny, at least a little humorous. The oil slick, you see, has invaded not only the beaches and wetlands, but our politics as well. The invasion has turned a lot of the complaints about government on their heads.
Suddenly, the complaints that the federal government regulates too much have turned into complaints that it wasn't regulating enough. Politicians who once didn't want the feds to do anything, are now complaining that they aren't doing enough.
The ridiculous assertions that Barack Obama is a dictator have turned into equally ridiculous claims that he is not acting forcefully enough to deal with the crisis. Those who have been screaming about a so-called power grab are now griping that the president hasn't grabbed enough power. And if they aren't complaining, they have been silent. TEA Party favorite Rand Paul in Kentucky, for example, criticized the president for stating that he would keep pressure on the company to deal properly with the disaster, asserting that the president didn't have the right to do that. Since then, though, he has avoided making public statements about the spill.
Finally, those who holler the government can't do anything right have learned that private industry doesn't always do things right either, and their mistakes can devastate lives as much or more than the government mistakes.
This disaster has, in fact, revealed a truth about our relationship to our government. Americans, in general — yes, even liberals — don't really like government very much, particularly when it inhibits something we like to do. But Americans — yes, even conservatives — also want the government to protect us from evil deeds and foul-ups of businesses and our fellow citizens.
In short, we have conflicting expectations and desires of our governenment. We want a small (and cheap) government, but we want it to be ready with resources (including money) whenever we have a problem, whether it's an economic crisis, a terrorist attack, a flood of illegal immigrants or, in this case, a disaster resulting from corporate carelessness.
Those conflicting expectations have created the mess we are in right now. We have demanded a lot of our government, while at the same time weakening its ability to meet our demands and cutting the funding for taking needed action.
The cry right now is for a smaller, more limited government, one that is less intrusive into our lives. But that demand is contradicted by other cries. We demand more protection from illegal aliens, rising health care costs, Mother Nature's torments and man-caused disasters. We also demand more intrusion into people's lives in order to detect possible terrorists or stop women from seeking abortions.
The political fashion right now is to be angry, and it's exemplified by the ranting of talking heads of both extremes. The sentiment this year is to “throw the rascals out” and elect “outsiders” to office.
Unfortunately, recent history shows that such actions don't work. Electing political outsiders such as Arnold Schwartzenegger and Jesse Ventura didn't solve the problems faced by California and Minnesota, and filling Congress or the state legislature with novices next November won't produce positive results either. And decisions made in anger are rarely rational, and often make matters worse.
That's because the basic problem remains. Americans will still want the government to take action on things that are bothering them — everything from stopping oil spills to banning birth control methods they don't like. And they will want those things to happen without paying the taxes necessary to carry out those mandates.
No matter who is elected, the winners will have to find a way to reconcile those conflicting demands.
Meanwhile, we have a disaster in the Gulf of Mexico because a corporation cut corners in the name of profit, and government regulation failed to prevent it. Oil is still flowing into the Gulf. Fishermen are losing their livelihoods and pelicans are still dying.
And politically, we are all slipping and sliding in a giant oil slick.