In moments of distress and panic, it is tempting to succumb to ideologies that promise a single, simple solution to the mess that is the human condition. Communism was blinkered like that, but so, in its purest form, is free-market capitalism. While drilling in 5,000 feet of water, the capitalists at BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig made a considered decision to forgo some troublesome safety measures, to save time and about $10 million in costs. Why not risk a small fine when millions of gallons of oil were waiting? It must have seemed like the smart play at the time. With BP now facing losses of up to $60 billion and possible bankruptcy for losing that bet, the market will now self-correct: No oil company will repeat this kind of carelessness while drilling offshore.

Sad to say, BP will not be the only one to pay the price of this learning experience, now that tens of millions of barrels of thick crude are still gushing into the Gulf. This is the problem with Adam Smith’s “invisible hand’’: To work its corrective magic, it depends on occasional disastrous mistakes, depressions, death, and widespread suffering. Does that mean we should turn to government regulation for The Answer? Regulation, too, often falls short of the ideal. Consider the case of Bernie Madoff, who ran his monstrous Ponzi scheme for two decades, right under the noses of the SEC. Even after a whistle-blower came to the agency with proof that Madoff’s “investment fund’’ was a scam, the regulators did nothing; they were too dimwitted, and too busy looking at the porn on their computers. That leaves us, I'm afraid, back where we started: groping our way forward, with no surefire solutions to human fallability.

William Falk