The Magazine

Dick Cheney Was Right

The energy debate is about virtue

Jun 11, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 37 • By ROBERT H. NELSON
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If Americans should come to recognize this as the actual choice, it seems likely that a majority will believe the oil should be developed and that environmentalists perhaps should spend more time in real churches. It is, to say the least, hypocritical to drive a Volvo and jet-set across the world, and then turn around and lament the evils of modern consumption.

Getting into moral domains like this will, however, involve political risk—as Vice President Cheney has learned. There is nothing like the fury of the hypocrite exposed. For the Bush administration, the political risk may not in the end be worth the $20 billion to $40 billion in revenue that would come to the federal government. Americans also have a longstanding aversion to debating religion in public. That is why the true ANWR debate has been disguised.

Yet, the stakes go well beyond ANWR. The fate of nuclear power in the 21st century will also have as much to do with issues of national "virtue" as with any technical considerations. Whatever its practical advantages, nuclear power for many opponents has become a symbol of what they see as the tendency of human beings in the modern era to "play God."

Ultimately, the fate of both nuclear power and the oil in ANWR will be resolved as much by the ethics of national "virtue" as by economics. Following the release of the Bush plan, an honest debate on the future shape of national energy policy may require the services of theologians as much as those of engineers and economists.

Robert H. Nelson is a professor in the school of public affairs at the University of Maryland and senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He is the author of Economics as Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond (Penn State Press).