10/12/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Warning: Wrecking Crew at Work

The story seems designed to repel your attention, like the wrong end of a magnet; the story is, at the same time, exactly what this election ought to be about. It is a perfectly formed artifact of conservative misrule, a little gem of market-based merde.

It seems that, over the years, an obscure Federal agency called the Minerals Management Service--a public agency, remember, that supposedly serves you and me--grew quite chummy with the private businesses it dealt with. Specifically, these private businesses were oil companies; the MMS's job was to collect royalties from them when they drilled on public land; and the oil industry's natural inclination was to pay as little as they could.

Naturally, the two became great friends, industry and business getting together in the kind of entrepreneurial synergy that conservatism has been telling us we needed for years. Every year the MMS would have a party in Houston at which they would hand out awards to oil companies. Executives went back and forth from the federal operation to the (far more lucrative) private one. Federal employees apparently got gifts, took trips, and even got laid courtesy of Big Oil.

It matters for two reasons: first, because this obscure little office is the second-largest source of revenue for the Federal Government after the IRS. What they let slide you and I will have to make up on April 15.

Second, because this bungle-dee-botch is what government looks like when you make it "market-based," as George W. Bush once put it. This kind of government answers not to the public but to the party with the most money. It's the same virtually wherever you look in conservative history: The FAA describing the airlines as its "customers"; officials at the Labor Department thinking of business as the "primary customer"; officers at the FDA allegedly regarding Big Pharma as "our client"; and, back in the Reagan years, even officials at the EPA speaking of business as the "primary constituent."

A third reason: Because this is not democracy. It is plutocracy.