Politics & Law

Conservatism’s death gusher

George Lakoff

The issue is death — death gushing at ten thousand pounds per square inch from a mile below the sea, tens of thousands of barrels of death a day. Not just death to eleven human beings. Death to sea birds, sea turtles, dolphins, fish, oyster beds, shrimp, beaches; death to the fishing industry, tourism, jobs; and death to a way of life based on the beauty and bounty of the Gulf.

Many, perhaps a majority, of the Gulf residents affected are conservatives, strong right-wing Republicans, following extremist Governors Bobby Jindal and Haley Barbour. What those conservatives are not saying, and may be incapable of seeing, is that conservatism itself is largely responsible for what happened, and that conservatism is a continuing disaster for conservatives who live along the Gulf. Conservatism is an ideology of death.

It was conservative laissez-faire free market ideology — that maximizing profit comes first — that led to:

  • The corrupt relationship between the oil companies and the Interior Department staff that was supposedly regulating them
  • Minimizing cost by not drilling relief wells
  • The principle that oil companies could be responsible their own risk assessments on drilling
  • Maximizing profit by outsourcing risk assessment that told them what they wanted to hear: zero risk!
  • Maximizing profit by minimizing cost of materials
  • Maximizing profit by failing to pay cleanup crews and businesses for their losses
  • Focusing only on profit by failing to test the cleanup methods to be used if something went wrong
  • Minimizing cost by sacrificing the health of cleanup crews, refusing to allow them to use respirator masks to protect against toxic fumes.

It is conservative profit-above-all market fundamentalism that has led other oil companies to mount a massive PR campaign to isolate BP as an anomalous “bad actor” and to argue that offshore drilling should be continued by the self-proclaimed “good actors.” Their PR fails to mention that in Congressional hearings it came out that they all outsource risk assessment to the same company that declared that BP had “zero risk.” The PR fails to mention that they all use cost-benefit analysis to maximize profits just as BP did. Cost-benefit analysis only looks at monetary costs versus benefits, case by case, not at the risk of massive death of the kind that has been gushing out of the Gulf.  Death, in itself, even at that scale, is not a “cost.” Only an outflow of money is a “cost.” This is what follows from conservative laissez-faire market ideology, an ideology that continues to sanction death on a Gulf scale.

But the facts won’t make a difference to dyed-in the-wool conservatives, since the facts will be filtered through their ideological frames: when the facts don’t fit the frames, the facts will be ignored.

The conservative worldview says man has dominion over nature: nature is there for human monetary profit. Profit is sanctioned over the possibility of massive death and destruction in nature. Conservatives support even more dangerous drilling off the coast of Alaska and are working to repeal the President’s moratorium on deep water drilling. Nature be damned; the oil companies have a right to make money, death or no death.

Directness of causation is a rarely noticed property of the conservative worldview. What are the causes of crime? Bad people, lock ‘em up, say conservatives. There are no social or economic causes, that is, systemic causes, in the conservative universe. So it is with the Death Gusher. Blame BP, the “bad actor.” Look for the immediate cause, but don’t look any further, at the profit-above-all system in which all oil companies operate, a system idolized by conservatives. Without an understanding of systemic causes, the causes cited above won’t make much sense.

A great many self-identified conservatives are actually what I’ve called “biconceptuals,” who have both conservative and progressive worldviews, but on different issues. They actually share a progressive view of nature: they love the beauty and appreciate the bounty of the Gulf, as it was before the Death Gusher. They want to save the environment of the Gulf and the way of life as it was. But shift the issue to the culpability of laissez-faire markets, the absolute right to profit from nature and profit-maximizing corporate practices, and their conservative worldview is activated. They will not be able to see the causal role of conservatism itself in the Death Gusher, and in the conservative ideology of greed and death that has given us the global warming disaster we now face worldwide.

Incidentally, there are bi-conceptual Democrats who share the conservative view of the market. Their views have led to many of President Obama’s problems with Democrats in Congress.

Finally, there is what progressive Democrats see as a contradiction: conservative advocates of smaller and weaker government and critics of governmental power trying to pin the Death Gusher Disaster on Obama for not having and using enough government power to prevent or lessen the disaster — even though the government has no capacity to plug oil wells.

The contradiction is logical, from a progressive point of view, but not from a conservative point of view. The highest value in the conservative universe is to preserve, defend, and extend conservatism itself. Anything that helps, or fails to harm, Obama contradicts this highest principle, since Obama’s deepest values on the whole fundamentally contradict conservative values. Conservatives, on principle, cannot let a major opportunity to criticize Obama go by. Of course, it also helps conservatives politically.

Those who are not held captive by the conservative worldview should be able to recognize the causal role of conservatism in the Death Gusher in the Gulf. Many progressives do, but keep it to themselves.

Progressives have been much too kind to conservatives on this matter. They have largely accepted the Bad Actor Frame, criticizing BP but not the whole industry and its practices. No one should be drilling miles under the sea, where oil comes out at 10,000 pounds per square inch. No matter how much profit is involved.

Conservatism gushes death — and not only in the Gulf of Mexico.

Cross-posted from the Huffington Post.

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Comments to "Conservatism’s death gusher":
    • Robert J

      Dr. Lakoff… you are famous for “framing” the issues in public discourse and I do have to admit you do like to frame people, a whole class of people with the actions of a few. So let’s play “frame that issue” and being you got to go first it is my turn and I would like start by creating the frame…

      “Liberalism’s Debt Gusher”

      Yes, the issue is debt – debt gushing at billions of dollars a day and trillions of dollars a year and not just for you and me but for hundreds of millions of American’s and their hopes and dreams of retirement and living a good life, but all they have is a sack full of IOU’s from excesses spending by left-wing liberals.

      Many, perhaps a majority, of the debt residents affected are liberals, strong left-wing Democrats, following extremist leaders like President Obama and legislators like Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. What those liberals are not saying, and may be incapable of seeing, is that liberalism itself is largely responsible for what happened, and that liberalism is a continuing disaster for liberals who live in America because the budgets are drying up. Liberalism is an ideology of debt.

      Gee… this is kind of fun Dr. Lakoff, all I have to do is take your characters and issues out of your frame job and put mine in. Only one problem… I would rather face the oil along the gulf than see my children’s children face your debt!

      Very, Very sincerely
      Robert J

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    • Deb Jepson

      This morning on my way to work I heard a person speaking on 90.7, NPR, about the new health care regulations. One of the people against the regulations said, “The highest moral value in the universe is profit.”

      I kid you not. I almost drove off the road. I have emailed the radio station to get the name of the person who said this. Holy cow! The highest moral value IN THE WHOLE UNIVERSE is profit. Start listing secondary values like respect for yourself, love of others, telling the truth, perhaps love for the creator. All secondary in the values line-up to this individual. This is who we are dealing with.

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    • Robert J

      Dear Deb Jepson

      With out profits my dear, there would be nothing for the liberals to tax and therefore would shrivel-up and blow away! Which looks to be the case these days.

      I think you should have someone look at that hole in your foot… I believe it is effecting your driving! Robert J

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    • NorthFlorida

      Why does this have to be so politicized? When people start pointing fingers it slows action on everyone around. It makes me sick. There is so much vitriolic criticism and it is extremely counter-productive. Simply hire the maid services to clean… if they are anything like the cleaning company I use the mess will be gone in no time.

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    • James Anderson Merritt

      “Laissez faire” means just that, “let (the market) work.” Whether you agree that they exist or are effective, or not, the market has intrinsic forces and mechanisms that regulate its activities at least as well as, if not better than, any man-made attempts at “regulation.” What we are told are “laissez faire” policies really aren’t. They are, for the most part, mere rearrangements and distortions of already-distorting regulation, to benefit the politically and economically well-connected. “Corporatism,” “mercantilism,” “crony capitalism,” and (if a strong military is added and aggressively employed) “fascism” are other, better words to use. But when the rigged game fails, the finger of blame always stabs out at “free market,” “laissez faire” ideology.

      True free enterprise is based on the idea of “win-win.” To the extent that every exchange takes place voluntarily, under mutually agreed terms, and each party to a transaction goes away thinking he or she got the better of the deal, then the market is working. The situation moves away from optimal whenever forceful intervention — usually by big players and government, working in cooperation — results in restraint of trade, reduction of competition, price-fixing, artificial scarcity, etc.

      “Laissez faire” is not the phrase to describe the establishment of liability caps, for instance, or the creation of various government run- or mandated insurance programs for loans, deposits, etc. Or regulatory regimes that are so onerous that only the largest players can deal effectively with them, inspiring industrial consolidation that leads to the emergence of “too big to fail” enterprises, which are then strengthened and emboldened by the existence of the liability caps and various insurances. The “laissez faire” approach to dealing with the BP oil spill would include suing the company into bankruptcy. The mercantilist approach, on the other hand, results in caps, tax-breaks, superfunds, and bailouts for the largest, most well-connected players — precisely the kind of thing we have seen, over and over again, for the past several decades, no matter who is in the White House or controls congress.

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    • film izle

      Conservatives, as today’s bugaboo is apparently labelled, are no more “death gushers” than any random creature in Nature itself. Find me an environmentalist chimpanzee, a conservationist locust, or social justice-advocating lion.

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    • Kakko Warui

      Quote: …conservative ideology of greed and death that has given us the global warming disaster we now face worldwide.

      …So liberals did not fast track GoM drilling last year, are against unfair distribution of pork barrel spending, AND also got us out of Vietnam and voted against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?

      HAHAHAHA!!!! Oh that’s a good one.

      Replace “laissez faire” with “corporatism”. Many self-alleged conservatives and liberals have both been complicit with corporatism for a long time.
      ~~~~
      Go Bears!

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    • wunsacon

      >> What possible motivation can even laissez faire advocates have for killing people and wildlife, and what profit can they gain thereby?

      The laissez faire advocates advocate for laissez faire policies. But, corporate insiders use a laissez faire regulatory (non-regulatory) environment to sweeten short-term benefits for themselves. “Death” is an externality dealt to *other* people. In other words, “death” of wildlife and other people and ravenous consumption of natural resources to the point of leaving none for future generations is *profitable* for short-term thinkers and insiders. That’s not the *intent* of laissez faire policy. It’s the byproduct.

      In a way, “laissez faire advocates” provide the intellectual cover for these activities. Lenin had his “useful idiots”. Gordon Gekko has his.

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    • william simpson

      What possible motivation can even laissez faire advocates have for killing people and wildlife, and what profit can they gain thereby?

      Its blatantly obvious that you cant make a market in death, that regs will be tightened up, and that everyone will learn lessons and the firms involved will bend over backwards to show their credentials.

      Most every free market economist I have read is clear on the need for a sound body of law, effectively policed, and as clear as possible, to prevent market behaviour descending to the law of the jungle.

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    • Jay

      One of the best misrepresentation of economics since Marx.

      Let me rephrase something for you…

      “(Progressives) Look for the immediate cause, but don’t look any further, at the government run system in which all oil companies operate.”

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    • Tim Worstall

      “Cost-benefit analysis only looks at monetary costs versus benefits, case by case, not at the risk of massive death of the kind that has been gushing out of the Gulf. Death, in itself, even at that scale, is not a “cost.” Only an outflow of money is a “cost.” This is what follows from conservative laissez-faire market ideology, an ideology that continues to sanction death on a Gulf scale.”

      How very, very strange.

      Have you ever actually looked at a cost benefit analysis? Death (and pollution, the economic damages caused by either or both) very much are included in a cost benefit analysis. The cost is usually listed as whatever the cost would be if disaster happened multiplied by the possibility of the disaster happening.

      Just as an example, recall the furor a few weeks back when the news broke that BP valued its employees lives at $10 million a piece. This came out of the documents about the Texas refinery explosion. This value was then used in determining the costs and benefits of different types of living accomodation at the refinery. Would the cost of safer accomodation be worth it, given that value of $10 million per life?

      Now, you can argue about whether $10 million is the right number or not (it’s actually a bit high, $5-$6 million is the more normal one used for a US worker) but what you can’t argue, given this example, is that death is not included in cost benefit calculations.

      Indeed, part of the furor over the release of this number was the anger at the idea that a value was being put on a life. All of which makes, only a few weeks later, the allegation that life, lives, death, are not included, are not given a valuation, in cost benefit analyses really very odd indeed.

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    • The Unbeliever

      Conservatives, as today’s bugaboo is apparently labelled, are no more “death gushers” than any random creature in Nature itself. Find me an environmentalist chimpanzee, a conservationist locust, or social justice-advocating lion.

      Nature’s own ecosystem is infinitely more destructive than any man-made policy that impacts on it. Are earthquakes conservative? Are flash floods free-marketeers? (I suppose hurricanes are racist and money-oriented, since they have heavier impacts on the poor.)

      Point is, if you jump on ideology every time you see something more brutal than yourself, you’re going to be chasing ghosts more often than you make a cogent argument. And if you’re going to take one-off events as proof of destructive intent, you’re going to trip over the inherent random nature of the world more often than you’ll stumble across a true insight on politics or economics.

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    • wunsacon

      >> Nature’s own ecosystem is infinitely more destructive than any man-made policy that impacts on it.

      Yes. But, it seems you’re using this “apples and plastic bottles” comparison to excuse lesser destructive acts of our own choosing. Does this mean you don’t mind if my septic tank leaches into your well?

      More fundamentally, do you believe that humans have free will and the responsibility to exercise it in ways to minimize negative impacts? If not, then re-read your post and ask yourself whether you were making a point.

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    • Alice Friedemann

      Conservatives are anything but that. They favor using up the remaining resources of the planet as fast as possible and lining their own pockets, not the nation, with the profits. That’s pretty radical! For several centuries fish, trees, topsoil, groundwater, oil, coal, natural gas, minerals, fossil fuels, and so on have been “mined” past carrying capacity — how is that Conservative? I vote we start calling Conservatives Locusts and their actions Locustian.

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    • Jo

      Obama signed off on this deep-water horizon deal in 2009, in the fall. The Congress ruled the vote. If liberals claim nature is first before humans, then I suggest voluntary suicide by the liberals. If not they are just frauds and no linguistic twisting can amend the falsities. If you have an economic program better than capitalism, in which the Chinese are exploiting at the west’s detriment, then bring it forth. Why should the public pay for complainers? Obama makes war in Pakistan/Afgh. and against farmers. Is that conservative or liberal? He promised to close Gitmo, but has not, is that conservative or liberal? Obama promised socialism by implication and the economy sees many people suffering, but not your wealth. Is that conservatism or liberalism? So are the Chinese these bad people for running capitalism? that is conservativism according to your view here?

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    • Anthony St. John

      Your posts are truly breathtaking, on this blog and HuffPo, I’ve never read such demonstrations of the art of linguistics. I just wish there were simpler ways to get the point over with a lot less exposition so more people can focus on making the right things happen.

      For example “The conservative worldview says man has dominion over nature: nature is there for human monetary profit. Profit is sanctioned over the possibility of massive death and destruction in nature” pretty much states a root cause of our political, economic, social and environmental problems today.

      But, is there some way to look at the bright side of life, as Eric Idle put it? Indeed, you make it look like those who believe in the conservative worldview would also have seconded Pontius Pilate’s decision to end the life of a man who simply wanted to promote cultural values like Peace, Love, Happiness and other moral values.

      QUESTION: Will we ever be able to make morality a paramount cultural value in time to save humanity from totally unacceptable consequences of all the threats we face today?

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    • Bronwen Rowlands

      Prof. Lakoff,
      Well done. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would like to see you apply the same passion and directness to describe the conservative death gusher here at UC.

      [Report abuse]

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