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Enron and the Cheney List

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The controversy over Vice President Dick Cheney’s secret energy-policy consultation list is amusing. Government should certainly err on the side of disclosing such things, but that’s not the point here. Those most vocal in demanding the list seem to be saying they can’t judge the Bush administration’s energy policy until they know who lobbied for it. But why can’t they? You have to wonder about anyone who is so insecure about his ability to judge a policy that he can’t make up his mind before he finds out who the players are.

Are Cheney’s critics afraid they might endorse a particular policy only then to learn that Enron favored it too? Is this ruckus all about avoiding embarrassment?

Enron favored the Kyoto antiglobal-warming treaty, anticipating profits in the contrived market for pollution permits. But I don’t see any greenhouse alarmists forsaking Kyoto for that reason. (They should give it up because it’s a terrible treaty aimed at a nonexistent problem.) So why is it necessary to know whether Enron, or any other energy firm, endorsed a given policy in the Bush energy plan? A policy is either good or bad, regardless of who favors and opposes it.

It so happens that the Bush plan is full of subsidies and tax incentives. Subsidies are bad because the government takes money from the taxpayers and gives it to companies to carry out politically favored projects. Tax incentives, while different from subsidies, similarly substitute political judgments for market-based decisions. Both are as anti-free market as it gets. It’s legal plunder. Thus they should be opposed no matter who lobbied for or against them. (By the way, Enron was steeped to its ears in government subsidies — some free-market advocate.)

On the other hand, real deregulation (not the counterfeit that occurred in California and elsewhere) is good. It frees people to engage in voluntary exchange, which is both morally benign and economically beneficial. Again, it doesn’t matter who’s for it or against it. It’s good — period. ( By the way, Enron’s record on deregulation is highly suspect. The company favored it only where it was advantageous — again, some free-market advocate.)

Come to think of it, it may not be a bad idea to oppose policies supported by Enron. It was almost always on the wrong side of the market-versus-socialism debate. Besides supporting Kyoto, it was a major recipient of corporate welfare for years. The Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) ladled out $600 million and over $1 billion, respectively, to this alleged paragon of wild free markets. I’d like to see how much more it would have looted the taxpayers had it been an advocate of socialism.

Those two programs, supposed examples of enlightened government, are explicitly intended to countermand the verdicts of investors. Unworthy projects that cannot attract private capital may still be pursued thanks to these taxpayer-fleecing interventions. Enron lived by such violations of free-market principles. One of its Ex-Im Bank subsidies was for a failed power-plant venture in India. It lost more than $600 million in 2001. In the Clinton years, Enron was always represented on those Commerce Department junkets designed to whip up business for American firms with foreign governments.

So why aren’t Enron’s critics calling for an end to the Ex-Im Bank, OPIC, and Commerce Department? As U.S. Rep. Ron Paul writes, “The point is that Enron was intimately involved with the federal government. While most in Washington are busy devising ways to ‘save’ investors with more government, we should be viewing the Enron mess as an argument for less government.”

Precisely. But it would not serve the agenda of the political establishment to emphasize Enron’s dependence on the government. So it must instead be portrayed as an advocate of free markets. What a laugh.

The Bush-Cheney energy plan is bad on its face, not because Enron, that creature of the state, supported it.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.