Be wary of Washington politicians' `solutions' to the oil `crisis'

August 25, 2005|By Thomas Sowell

WITH OIL prices setting records, the word crisis is being used and all sorts of political solutions are being proposed. Is there really a crisis?

One of the dictionary definitions of a crisis is "the point in the course of a serious disease at which a decisive change occurs, leading either to recovery or to death." Is that where we are when it comes to oil? Are we either going to solve the problem of oil or see it destroy us economically?

In political semantics, the word crisis has come to mean any situation that someone wants to use to justify doing something that will be called a solution. Crises are a dime a dozen by political and media definitions.

Almost as common as crises are conspiracy theories. Whenever the price of gasoline shoots up, Sen. Barbara Boxer of California can be depended on to demand an investigation of the oil companies. That previous investigations have found no conspiracies is no deterrent.

Why, then, are oil prices so high?

It is plain old supply and demand. With the economies of huge nations such as China and India developing more rapidly, more oil is being demanded in the world market and there are few new sources of supply.

What should our government do?

We will be lucky if they do nothing. But with congressional elections coming up next year, that is very unlikely. Candidates for Congress are virtually guaranteed to come up with all sorts of "solutions."

These solutions will be packaged as brilliant new ideas, courageous and far-seeing. But most will be retreads of old ideas that remain untested or that have been tested and found wanting.

Price controls, arbitrary higher gas mileage standards for cars, "alternative energy sources" and other nostrums are sure to surface once again.

The last time we had price controls on gasoline, we had long lines of cars at filling stations. That nonsense ended almost overnight when President Ronald Reagan got rid of price controls with a stroke of the pen. What happened is what usually happens when government restrictions are ended: There was more production of oil. In fact, the 1980s became known as the era of an oil glut, and gasoline prices declined.

Today, production is being held back not by price controls but by political hysteria whenever anyone suggests producing more oil ourselves. Organized nature cults go ballistic at the thought that we might drill for oil in some remote part of Alaska.

Nor can we drill for oil offshore, or in many places on land, again for political reasons. Nor can we build enough refineries or even build hydroelectric dams as alternative sources of power.

Many of the same people who cry "No blood for oil!" also want higher gas mileage standards for cars. But higher mileage standards have meant lighter and more flimsy cars, leading to more injuries and deaths in accidents - in other words, trading blood for oil.

Apparently the only things we can do are the things in vogue among nature cultists and the politicians who cater to them, things such as windmills and electric cars. That is why we would be better off if the government did nothing and let people adjust their own energy consumption in their own ways as the prices of gasoline and fuel oil rise. But that is also politically unlikely.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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