End platitude dependency!

I’m no lover of the Saudi royal family or SUV’s, but it strikes me the trendy environmentalist battle cry to “end oil dependency” would sound a lot less attractive if it were “let’s impoverish the Middle East,” which is what it really means. Of course creating or sustaining poverty is the dark unstated goal of the environmental movement as a whole, since wealth is a function of consumption of resources and the environmental movement generally takes as its cue the witholding of natural resources from human use. But in this case I find it particularly amusing that the environmentalist bleating happens to accord so nicely to nationalist economics and politics.

Isn’t the problem with the Middle East not that it profits too much from international trade but that it is not involved enough? I don’t deny that the situation is far from ideal to today, when a single region and culture holds near-monopolistic control over a single critical natural resource, which comprises virtually the whole of its economic output. But the call to “end oil dependency” is a purely negative step: subtract oil, thus cutting off the Arab world’s cash flow, and what will you have? Africa. Less dangerous internationally for the immediate future? Undoubtedly. Better overall for humanity? Only the callous and myopic would believe that. As I recall a debate of a somewhat similar nature ensued during the occupation of Germany after World War II. Since the German political system had seemingly showed itself incorrigibly expansionist, autocratic and militant, some believed that the country should be reduced to a pre-industrial pastoral state to spare the rest of the world. Fortunately, some people (here’s looking at you, Mr. Hayek) recognized that the problem was not that Germany needed to be cut off from the rest of the world but that it had never really been integrated enough, with its nationalist-based economy and political system. Say what one will about the EU, its undoubted achievement has been to make Germans, and all Europeans, realize that they really cannot exist without each other.

The oil industry pretty much functions as a giant welfare program for Middle Eastern nations. It produces huge amounts of money but, due to its particular nature, it doesn’t actually require the residents to engage in economic activity to any great degree. It is a resource, essentially inalienable, that just sits underground until someone pays the owner of the ground above to let them tap it. No need to produce anything that consumers wish to buy–the product is already there, so these nominal producers don’t have to do anything. The change in social institutions and personal habits that usually accompanies the birth of a commercial society is thus not necessary. It should be no surprise then that the political liberalization that usually ensues from this development has not obtained in the Middle East to a degree commensurate with the amount of wealth created. And that money has given greater reach and influence to the non-liberal ideals of these societies even though it has not had the power to liberalize them. But just because the money derived from oil has not brought about sufficiently deep changes in these societies, does not mean that subtracting that money will be any kind of solution to the basic problems. How much oil is there in Pakistan? Afghanistan? Somalia? Chechnya? Morocco? Are these states any less problematic to their own citizens or Westerners? In short, while I definitely concur that it is highly desirable that the nature of trade with the Middle East change, it seems to me that the only true solution to the problems in our relationship to the Middle East is a broader economic investment in those states, not a lesser one.

2 Responses to “End platitude dependency!”

  1. Dave Says:

    Good point but there may be a two way street involved here. See http://www.spectator.co.uk/article_pfv.php?id=6474re. “All Men Are Not Created Equal” Also the same general idea about the gifts of Britishness has been made by Denish D’ Souza “What’s so great About America” in the chapter intitled “Two Cheers for Colonialism” explaining how “Britishness” has seemed to benifit India as well as Canada.

  2. R.J. Lehmann Says:

    It also bears mentioning that the country from which the U.S. imports the most oil is not Saudi Arabia, not Iraq or Iran or Russia or even Venezuela, but rather, that dangerous state known as Canada.

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