The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Falling Gas Prices

A left-coast writer named Mark Morford thinks that gas prices falling to $2 a gallon would be the worst thing to happen to America. After all, he says, the wrong people would profit: oil companies (why would oil companies profit from lower gas prices?), auto makers, and internet retailers like Amazon that offer free shipping.

If falling gas prices are the worst for America, then the best, Morford goes on to say, would be to raise gas taxes by $6 a gallon and dedicate all of the revenue to boondoggles “alternative energy and transport, environmental protections, our busted educational system, our multi-trillion debt.” After all, government has proven itself so capable of finding the most cost-effective solutions to any problem in the past, and there’s no better way to reduce the debt than to tax the economy to death.

Morford is right in line with progressives like Naomi Klein, who thinks climate change is a grand opportunity to make war on capitalism. Despite doubts cast by other leftists, Klein insists that “responding to climate change could be the catalyst for a positive social and economic transformation”–by which she means government control of transportation, housing, and just about everything else.

These advocates of central planning remind me of University of Washington international studies professor Daniel Chirot assessment of the fall of the Soviet empire. From the time of Lenin, noted Chirot, soviet planners considered western industrial systems of the late nineteenth century their model for an ideal economy. By the 1980s, after decades of hard work, they had developed “the most advanced industries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries–polluting, wasteful, energy intensive, massive, inflexible–in short, giant rust belts.”

Morford and Klein want to do the same to the United States, using climate change as their excuse, and the golden age they wish to return to is around 1920, when streetcars and intercity passenger trains were at their peak (not counting the WWII era). Sure, there were cars, but only a few compared with today.

What they don’t understand is that, even at their peak, intercity passenger trains carried the average American only about 900 miles a year, while streetcars and other urban transit carried the average American about 700 miles a year. Moreover, nearly all of this travel was by the top 25 or 30 percent: until that evil capitalist Henry Ford made his mass produced automobile available at affordable prices, the working class people that progressives claim to care about were no more mobile than Americans had been a hundred years before.

Thanks to profiteering automakers and greedy oil companies, the average American today travels by car nearly 15,000 miles a year, close to 10 times the total per capita urban and intercity rail travel of 1920. Morford and Klein, of course, think less travel would be a good thing, since it would result (says Morford) in “people shopping more locally and patronizing small businesses again.” Yet there’s no guarantee of that. Higher gas prices could also lead to people shopping on Amazon or seeking out WalMart’s “always” low prices even more than they do today.

Are Morford, Klein, and their allies ignorant of the facts, economically naive, or do they just object to the choices other people make? It always seems like demagoguery to say that opponents are afraid of freedom, but it’s a natural conclusion for progressives like Morford and Klein.

When they say, “shop locally,” what they mean is, “pay more for inferior goods.” When they say, “don’t reward the oil companies,” what they mean is, “most people shouldn’t be allowed to travel as much as they like.” When they say, “capitalism is bad,” what they mean is, “you shouldn’t allowed to buy things that other people make because they might earn a profit from it.” When they say, “a planet of suburbs is a terrible idea,” what they mean is, “everyone should live like I do.”

In reality, low gas prices mean increased mobility which in turn should promote the economic recovery that has been stalled for six years by Obama’s central planning. Cars are getting more fuel efficient no matter what oil and gas prices are, and even if that is partly because of government fiat, it is also a lot more cost-effective than trying to change everyone’s lifestyles.

Freedom means allowing people to make choices you wouldn’t make for yourself. Moreover, it means allowing people to make choices you may not agree with for anyone because in a democracy we agree that no one person has all the answers for everyone else. Ultimately, freedom means understanding that the alternative, no matter how good it sounds on paper, always leads to tyranny and oppression.

If you really care about certain values, and some technologies seem to run counter to those values, then you need to figure out ways to make your values more attractive, not try to tax or regulate those technologies to death. If the price of freedom is a slightly warmer world–and I’m not convinced that it is–then we are better off learning to live with it than having to live under the yoke of well-intentioned but ignorant planners who don’t understand such basic concepts as cost effectiveness or supply and demand.