May 03, 2006


Of the top 14 oil exporters, only one is a well-established liberal democracy Norway. Two others have recently made a transition to democracy Mexico and Nigeria. Iraq is trying to follow in their footsteps. That's it. Every other major oil exporter is a dictatorship and the run-up in oil prices has been a tremendous boon to them.

My associate at the Council on Foreign Relations, Ian Cornwall, calculates that if oil averages $71 a barrel this year, 10 autocracies stand to make about $500 billion more than in 2003, when oil was at $27. This windfall helps to squelch liberal forces and entrench noxious dictators in such oil producers as Russia (which stands to make $115 billion more this year than in 2003) and Venezuela ($36 billion). Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez can buy off their publics with generous subsidies and ignore Western pressure while sabotaging democratic developments from Central America to Central Asia.

The "dictatorship dividend" also subsidizes Sudan's ethnic cleansing (it stands to earn $4.7 billion more this year than in 2003), Iran's development of nuclear weapons ($45 billion) and Saudi Arabia's proselytization for Wahhabi fundamentalism ($149 billion). Even in such close American allies as Kuwait ($35 billion) and the United Arab Emirates ($36 billion), odds are that some of the extra lucre will find its way into the pockets of terrorists.

Of course, if we seized the Saudi and Iranian oil fields and ran the pumps full speed, oil prices would plummet, dictators would be broke, and poor nations would benefit from cheap energy. But we'd be called imperialist oppressors, then.

UPDATE: Various people (with various degrees of enthusiasm) see the above as a call for invasion. It was, rather, a comment on the vacuity of the "imperialist oppressors" language. Though I was probably wrong there anyway: If we really were imperialist oppressors, the critics would be sucking up.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Ah, I see that Scott Adams has engaged in a similar thought experiment. His closing line rings true.

But just to troll a bit more, I do think that seizing Saudi and Iranian oil would be entirely morally justifiable on terms usually approved of by the left: They didn't earn it, they inherited it (it's like the Estate Tax writ large!). They're extracting huge profits for fatcats at the expense of the poor. They're racist, sexist, homophobic theocrats! (Literally!) Surely if it's ever permissible to redistibute wealth by force, this is the case. Right?

Meanwhile, Matthew Yglesias offers a practical objection: That there isn't enough surplus capacity in Saudi Arabia and Iran to make a difference. That's possible, but hardly undercuts the point. He also quotes Tim Lambert, who invokes Iraq -- but Lambert assumes, wrongly as usual, that Iraq was a war for oil. Had we wanted oil, we could have simply ended sanctions against Saddam, who after years of being limited to what he could launder through corrupt UN bureaucrats would have pumped plenty without us having to invade.

But practicalities aside, the point is -- why isn't war for oil not only morally permissible, but morally required, if the forcible redistibution of wealth in other ways (including "windfall profit" taxes -- or Evo Morales' seizure of natural gas wells in Bolivia) is OK?

MORE: Reader Tom O'Brien writes on practicalities:

Running the Saudi fields wide open would not do much for price. They are now being run at close to their maximum sustainable capacity. Running beyond that level for any length of time damages the reserve and curtails production. Can't fight Mother Nature regarding the reserve.

The Saudis don't really like these prices, although they surely enjoy them. They know as well as we do how markets respond to high prices, and the last thing they want is more exploration drilling in other parts of the world, more hybrid cars, more methanol plants, and the great horror of a plug-in hybrid that can run 40 miles on battery alone.

Well, that's about practicalities -- and based on practicality, the Estate Tax is a bust, too! (And the "windfall profits" tax, and, undoubtedly, Morales' nationalization.)

I'm all for the plug-in hybrids, though. As I noted in our podcast yesterday, I could do my commute plus errands without ever firing up the gas engine. Bring it on!

But while you do, ponder the fact that an arrangement that subsidizes fatcat dictators is sanctioned -- and even defended -- by people on the left, while even the idea of doing anything about it is condemned. That's not about practicalities, but philosophies.

And yes, the various lefty bloggers linking to this post and misrepresenting it are both dim and dishonest -- but that's hardly news, is it?