Glut of demagoguery from oily politicians

May 04, 2006|By THOMAS SOWELL

If there is anything worse than partisan demagoguery, it is bipartisan demagoguery. Republican leaders have now joined the Democrats in blaming the oil companies for rising prices when demand expands more than supply.

Prices have been rising under these conditions for thousands of years, long before there were any oil companies. This has happened with everything from food to furs, and it has happened among people in every part of the world.

What also has happened in recent times has been that higher gasoline prices bring outraged charges of gouging by Big Oil. Some of the most emotionally powerful political words and phrases are wholly undefined - "exploitation," "greed," "social justice" and the perennial favorite "gouging."

Are the oil companies charging all that the traffic will bear? No doubt. But they were probably charging all that the traffic would bear when the price of gasoline was half of what it is today.

Even businesses that are losing money are charging all that the traffic will bear. Otherwise, they could raise their prices and stop losing money.

Most of the people who are making this claim are charging all that the traffic will bear for their own labor or the use of their own products. Dressing up the plain fact that we all usually prefer more to less in political rhetoric about gouging explains nothing. Something that is true all the time cannot explain drastic changes.

Is it rocket science that when oil prices hit new highs, gasoline prices also hit new highs? Do you think the price of wheat could double without the price of bread going up? Would we have politicians running around spouting off about gouging by Big Wheat?

No matter how big American oil companies are, there are other oil companies around the world and the price of oil is determined in international markets. As for investigating Big Oil, that has been done time and again, with nothing to show for it.

Is it rocket science that when huge countries such as India and China have rapidly growing economies, their demand for oil goes up by leaps and bounds? Is it rocket science that when demand shoots up but supply doesn't go up as much, prices rise?

Prices are a symptom of an underlying reality. Politicians can seize on the symptom, and even pass laws dealing with it, without changing the underlying reality.

Prices are like a thermometer reading. When someone has a fever, it is not going to do any good to put the thermometer in ice water to bring down the reading. If you think the fever is gone, it may not be long before the patient is gone, if you don't do something about what is causing the fever.

Ironically, the people who are making the most noise about the high price of gasoline are those who have for years blocked every attempt to increase our oil supply. They have opposed drilling for oil off the Atlantic Coast, off the Pacific Coast or in Alaska. They have prevented the building of any new oil refineries anywhere for decades.

They have fought against the building of hydroelectric dams or nuclear power plants to generate electricity without the use of oil. They love to talk about their pet "alternative energy sources," without the slightest attention to what these would cost in terms of money, jobs or our national standard of living.

Even when one of their pet alternative energy sources - windmills - is proposed to be built near them, suddenly it is not right to spoil their view.

Politicians have indulged these spoiled brats for generations. Now, when the chickens come home to roost, they are screaming about high prices and Big Oil. That is world-class chutzpah.

Liberal politicians have played this game for years. With the help of the liberal media, they have so demonized oil producers and so replaced economics with demagoguery that now Republicans are running scared, which seems to be their favorite exercise.

Republicans have apparently decided that if you can't lick 'em, join 'em. Republican "leaders" have apparently decided to give up on trying to talk sense to the public. So we end up with bipartisan demagoguery.

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

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