Not as a legal matter, of course.
I doubt anyone will face any criminal liability at all for the deaths of 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch mine, owned by Massey Energy and its dictatorial CEO, Don Blankenship. (Blankenship, if you’ll recall, spent more than $3 million of his own money to defeat a West Virginia Supreme Court justice who was expected to rule against his firm in a $50 million case, by accusing the justice of sympathizing with child molesters.) In the unlikely event someone at Massey is convicted of bribing mine-safety officials, it certainly won’t be Blankenship: no doubt he kept himself well insulated.
But at a Congressional hearing today, miners from Upper Big Branch testified that it was Massey policy to cover up mine safety violations and to fire workers who pointed them out. Of course, they couldn’t complain to their union: Blankenship had defeated all organizing attempts by the simple tactic of promising to shut down any mine where the workers voted to exercise their legal right – internationally recognized as a human right – to bargain collectively.
Last year Blankenship earned – or at least was paid – $17.8 million, which was somewhat more than the $12 million Massey had to pay in fines for mine-safety violations. That works out to more than $600,000 for each of the men who were killed due to the illegal practices of the company he runs. Here in Los Angeles, hit-men work for less, but no doubt the compensation committee of the Massey Energy board was told by their compensation consultant that the kind of unaccountable homicide Blankenship practices requires special skills and therefore justifies additional pay.
Since Blankenship is surely above the law, there’s no real point in getting mad at him. Yes, he’s the sort of person who makes you want to believe in Hell, but wishing won’t make it so. Of course, every politician who has ever touched his blood money ought to be permanently ostracized, but that won’t happen either: they won’t even get any nasty questions from the press. After all, it’s not as if they’d listened to sermons or something truly horrible like that.
Still, there’s a larger point to make. According to good libertarian doctrine, every single one of Blankenship’s actions is fully justified. He’s entitled – indeed, morally required – on behalf of his shareholders to run mines at whatever safety (or hazard) level maximizes profits. Any miner who doesn’t like it is perfectly free to seek employment elsewhere. The Mine Safety and Health Administration is a completely illegitimate interference with freedom of contract. Firing workers who report safety problems is fully covered by the doctrine of “employment at will,” under which a worker can be fired “for good cause, for no cause, or for cause morally wrong.” Just as they are free to quit, their employer is free to fire them. That’s “freedom of contract.” By resisting unionization, Blankenship has kept his workers free from depredations of the evil union bosses, and any attempt to avoid his thuggish threats to throw all the miners out of work reflects contempt for the “secret ballot.”
In a world where the Democratic Party hadn’t misplaced its brass knuckles, or in which there existed truly liberal mass media outlets – in the sense that Fox News is a self-consciously right-wing media outlet – Don Blankenship would be Acornized. He would become the poster child for what happens when “small-government” fantasies are allowed to intrude upon reality. Every Republican office-seeker would be forced either to defend the deaths of those 29 miners or to distance himself from the anti-regulation, anti-union, “drill baby drill” policies that made those deaths, and the BP oil spill, statistically inevitable.
But that isn’t the world we live in.