The Anti-Federalists, the Oil Spill, and the Catholic Church

Getting in the way of berm-building seems to be a federal passion. The folks down in Louisiana had been tearing their hair since the oil blow-out, trying to get permits to build the protective berms while the various federal agencies slowly, and with thoughtful attention to the intricacies of their own bureaucratic webs, mulled over their urgent requests.

To President Obama's credit, he did stop by the region on his way to a vacation to strike some concerned poses on the beach. But when he finally decided to address the crisis decisively, he demanded a moratorium on all offshore drilling. The move was calculated to make him appear as a real commander-in-chief in a crisis situation. But for all the political posturing, his moratorium ends up penalizing other competent companies and destroying the local economy of the gulf, based upon both fishing and off-shore drilling.

In short, the oil company, BP, is only concerned about its own slippery economic hide. The federal government is, well, acting like a Federacy of Dunces, moved either to decisive inaction or destructive action and outright folly by a combination of bureaucratic myopia and mismanagement, hidden political motives (some of which are undoubtedly dark), and the desire to make national political points.

When the proposed Constitution(drafted by the so-called Federalists) was circulating the states for ratification after the famous Philadelphia Convention of 1787, the Anti-Federalists forcefully made the case that the Constitution delegated too much power to the federal government. In particular, they feared that the unlimited federal powers of taxation would create a vast bureaucratic web with "a large body of selfish, unfeeling, unprincipled civil officers" that would serve their own ends at the expense of state and local communities.

Here they were dead on, as those beleaguered in the gulf have woefully discovered. The Minerals Management Service, which oversees offshore drilling, has been for some time in bed with BP -- the interests of both being the feathering of their collective love-nests. Rather than shield the local communities from damage by the shoddy practices of BP, the bureaucratic powers of the MMS were aimed at maximizing the profits of a cut-corners company who couldn't care less about the real people on the ground in Louisiana. The U.S. Coast Guard cares only that federal regulations in regard to boating safety are fulfilled to the letter, while the gulf coastline is slathered with crude. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department is obsessing about habitat integrity and following the regulatory snakes-and-ladders, even while the oil is lapping the shores and ruining the habitats anyway.

All these agencies are powerful enough to interfere, with such predictably lugubrious results, precisely because of the federal power of taxation. Local money, taken through federal taxes, nourishes the growth of federal bureaucracies that then push their own self-perpetuating agenda at the expense of the local communities. Just as the Anti-Federalists feared, an expansive federal government will "take every occasion to multiply laws, and officers to execute them, considering these as so many necessary props for its own support."

The goal of any bureaucracy soon becomes, simply, the perpetuation and expansion of the bureaucracy itself. When a local crisis hits, the question for such a bureaucracy is not, "How can we help them?" but, "How does this affect us?"

Much the same must be said of the chief executive. President Obama's overriding concern seems to be, "How does this affect me? How does this affect my national agenda?" His declaration of a moratorium on offshore drilling was an attempt at providing a counterbalance to his previous inaction. Appearing to do something, so as to drag his national polls up, was more important than actually helping the people of the gulf. As the locals made immediately and amply clear, it's not what they want or need. Shutting down all offshore drilling simply kills the other half of the gulf economy.

As the principle of subsidiarity makes clear, the first priority should be defined by what the locals judge would be most helpful in the crisis. The federal government "should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need." The need is certainly there, but the lessons of wisdom, both conservative and Catholic, are lost on Washington.


Benjamin D. Wiker's newest book is 10 Books Every Conservative Must Read, Plus Four Not to Miss and One Impostor. His website is This article first appeared at and is reprinted with permission.

7/9/2010 4:00:00 AM