There are many different types of elitism and, contrary to populist memes or egalitarianism, not all of them are bad. Elitism in the workplace is a force to motivate higher achievement and to punish laziness. And elitism in education is the sole remaining bulwark against the anti-intellectualism of post-modernism and the “diversity movement”. But elitism in government regulation of lifestyle choices is almost always a negative force — it punishes the working poor for little benefit other than a marginal increase in feelings of smug superiority among what economist Thomas Sowell called “the Anointed”.
The latest variant is the renewed drive among “the Anointed” to use the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to promote dramatic increases in gas taxes under the pretense of forcing consumers to “pay the true cost of oil”. The argument goes something like this: Reliance on oil for transportation and other energy uses is bad because it leads to more pollution and an aggressively interventionist foreign policy. Therefore, all we need to do is calculate all those costs together and, viola, consumers would have a reason to prefer mass transit and carpooling in the short term and we would as a society be forced to develop and use clean energy sources in the long term.
The breezy logic covers up a rotten core of this kind of thinking, however. First, the “true costs of oil” are exaggerated for ideological reasons by those doing the calculating. The telltale signs lie in when and where they roll in the foreign policy argument. It may well be true that some American military interventions are driven by a need to secure safe energy supplies (e.g. the 1990-91 Gulf War, but when the “blood for oil” meme is extended to apply to wars where no oil interests are in play at all (Afghanistan) or when oil would actually be cheaper without the war (Iraq in 2003), it is being misapplied for partisan reasons.
More fundamentally, however, the rottenness comes out when we look at the alternatives to oil. Short term, the anti-oil elitists insist that consumers should be forced into smaller, more fuel efficient cars or, even better, mass transit systems. It is noteworthy that the vast majority of the anti-oil commentators live in the urbanized environs of the East Coast, where mass transit options are plentiful and mostly well-funded and well-policed, major cities are relatively close together, and the distances within metropolitan areas are relatively small. The world looks a lot different in areas of the country where population is much more spread out, mass transit systems are few, unreliable, and unsafe, and where distances between even medium-sized cities are in the hundreds of miles. In areas where viable mass transit options are years or decades away even if the funding for such systems were to magically appear (and the obstructions of environmentalist litigation blocking key routes magically removed). the real consequences of a massive increase in gas prices would be only an inconvenience to the relatively wealthy elite that populates the ranks of environmentalist groups, but would be devastating to those who have to rely on older cars to get to their lower middle class jobs. But, safe in their enclaves, the anti-oil activists aren’t really concerned with how their sweeping abstractions work in the real world. It’s sufficient for them to demonstrate their moral and intellectual superiority, receive the applause of the like-minded, and ignore the ensuing fallout.
Moreover, the long-term view shows more mendacity in the anti-oil crusade. Anti-oil activists talk righteously about alternatives to fossil fuels on one hand, but ally with environmental groups that block those same alternatives on the other. On the anti-oil presentation, we hear endless talk about electrical cars and clean energy, yet the same environmentalist groups that lead the charge against oil also oppose the construction of all new power generation, especially nuclear power (the only technology that is currently capable of replacing any significant percentage of fossil-fuel power). Even when new generators get through the absolute blizzard of obstructing litigation produced by environmentalist groups, they also block the construction of distribution systems which are absolutely essential to move energy around more efficiently. Environmentalist groups have even blocked wind and solar power generation, as where environmentalist champions led by the Kennedy family blocked development of a major wind power farm in Massachusetts. The only possible conclusion is that the fossil fuel focus is pretense and that their real objection is to the generation and use of electrical power itself — at least for everyone else. (You can be sure they still want their lights on and their computers powered.)
The overall picture is of insular elites who claim to speak on behalf of The Planet and The Poor, but in reality speak only for their own comfortable compatriots living in a world removed from the real concerns of real people who are only useful to them as rhetorical throwaways. The anti-oil elite isn’t dealing with the real problems, they’re just indulging in self-congratulation while promoting policy ideas that will hurt those Other People (most of whom live in red states anyway, so They are only getting what They deserve, right?). Banning offshore drilling at the cost of hundreds of thousands of jobs and raising gas taxes at the cost of hundreds of thousands more jobs is just keen, as long as the jobs of the preachy environmentalist activists and professional political commentators remain secure.
It’s frustrating because the need for alternative energy is real. But more of what South Park called “a cloud of smug” isn’t helping, it’s hurting. We need more nuclear power and less obstruction by environmentalist groups in the short term. We also need more, not less, oil exploration to keep the economy healthy enough to fund the cost of alternative energy research and deployment. We also need mass transit systems to be improved with expanded service, more reliable timetables, and much better policing. In the long term, we need less obstruction of wind and solar power as well as more efficient systems for energy distribution.
In other words, elites and environmentalists, please dispense with the smug and get out of the way. We have lots of work to do. And we’re going to need energy supplies to do it, notwithstanding your visions of a high-tax utopia where contemptutuous commoners pay all the bills as punishment for their many failings.