Heed de Tocqueville

Heed de Tocqueville

As we move on from what for many was a subdued celebration of Independence Day and face a summer of continued coronavirus discontent, we commend for your careful consideration the words of  Alexis de Tocqueville, the adroit chronicler of the early American experience:

“(The power of government) covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, throughout which the most original minds cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd.

“The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting.

“Such a power … does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes and stupefies a people, until each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and hard-working animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

Which brings us back to a damning grand jury report (by its account) taking to task Pennsylvania’s shale natural gas industry and its state environmental and health overseers.

According to the report – discussed in more detail last week (in At Large, “It wasn’t even a ham sammich … ,” 6/29/20) – state pollution overseers didn’t do their job and the industry ran roughshod over public resources and health.

But at least one of those regulators – the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which clearly is not a water-carrier for the industry – took serious exception to much of the grand jury’s conclusions (conclusions, we would remind, that did not include indictments, though criminal charges were filed against two companies previously).

And now, so has the shale gas industry retorted, represented by the Marcellus Shale Coalition (MSC).

As the group’s president noted in a letter to state legislators  – and mirroring much of the DEP’s pushback – the report, shepherded by the state attorney general, “exhibits a jarring lack of reality as to how shale gas development occurs in Pennsylvania.”

Continued MSC head David Spigelmyer, much of the grand jury’s 243-page report “conveys ‘evidence’ that simply relays anecdotal stories offered without proof, corroboration or attribution” and offers nothing to substantiate the claims made by residents.

Spigelmyer also notes that one of the report’s primary recommendations – a massively increased setback rule for drilling operations from structures (from 500 feet to 2,500 feet) – would make much of the Keystone State shale play untappable.

Perhaps that’s the real intent of AG Josh Shapiro?

But all that is of no consequence to Shapiro; he dismissed any criticism of the report’s findings — before they were even made — as “bogus.”

And Shapiro continues to stand by the report, one that Spigelmyer alleges was written by the AG’s office and presented to the grand jury for its rubber stamp.

Is this not the perfect example of what de Tocqueville also warned of – “systematic regimentation directed by centralized government,” as public policy observer Robert Schuettinger paraphrased it?

Government issues a suspect edict, any dissent is pre-emptively disemboweled and an arguably sloppy supposition is ram-rodded as “fact.” Due process, indeed in this case, is gutted.

“’The State’” is thy shepherd and ye shall be ‘The State’s’ sheeple,” is that it?

Sadly, we expect more of this kind of behavior as the coronavirus pandemic continues to play out. In such a climate, we risk deliberative sound public policy being replaced by autocratic pronouncements to which any dissent is roundly pooh-poohed (and, again, without factual support) before it is made.

And the public process, if not the very public weal, will be, to recount de Tocqueville words, compressed, enervated, extinguished and stupefied.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).