A Free-Market Energy Blog

“Buffer of Civility” (a message amid the gasoline lines)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- May 13, 2021

“Classical economists used to list among the virtues of the price mechanism that it avoided social strife…. It has worked so smoothly we did not understand what the classical economists meant; today we see. In addition to its economic virtues, the price mechanism is a vital buffer of civility.” (WSJ editorial, 1979)

For many decades, the opinion-page editorials of the Wall Street Journal have informed the public policy debate. This was certainly true during the 1970s energy crisis, and it remains so today amid climate alarmism and the nostrums of forced energy transformation.

With the gasoline lines on the East Coast, some marred by temper tantrums and fisticuffs, I am reminded of perhaps my all-time favorite WSJ energy editorial. “Buffer of Civility” was published during the dark days of energy violence in summer 1979 (yes, the U.S. experienced fuel riots from federal price controls that caused motor-fuel shortages).

Today’s shortage is not because of federal maximum price controls. It is from deliberate underpricing in the face of state and local laws prohibit market-clearing prices in an emergency. Believe it or not, higher prices are needed to discourage tank-topping and wasted time (and fuel usage) of the gasoline lines.

The law of supply and demand cannot be ignored. It is the best option always–and the least-worst option in emergencies.

Here is the classic WSJ editorial.

“Buffer of Civility,” Wall Street Journal (June 26, 1979)

How much this would affect the price of gasoline is a matter of conjecture, but we know of no informed opinion that would put the clearing price as high as the $1.60 a gallon that has already been touched by a favored station or two in the current crisis.

The Department of Energy recognizes that its regulations are the cause of lines, and indeed has proposed deregulation in the past. Now it is asking for comment on four different price-control alternatives. The best is a single uniform national price lid; if it were set high enough –$1 in our opinion, $1.30 in nearly everyone’s—the market itself would dictate a lower price and still handle the allocation problem. [note: $1 in 1979 = $3.85 today]

We would have the moral equivalent of decontrol, and people would no longer be rioting over gas station lines.

The truckers’ revolt has the same root cause. Diesel fuel has escalated in price, boosting trucking costs already pushed up by the 55-miles-an-hour speed limit and inflation generally.

Why does an increase in costs lead to strikes and highway blockades and shootings? It would be far more peaceful if truckers simply boosted their rates to pass along the higher costs, letting consumers decide which items are, and which are not, worth the additional cost of higher truck rates.

This civilized course is not the one the truckers are following, but the reason has nothing to do with their being colorful characters who talk CB and love violence. The reason is that their prices are controlled by a bunch of white-collared bureaucrats called the Interstate Commerce Commission.

Police with dogs and billy clubs cleared the streets of Levittown, Pa., Sunday after a two-day riot by fuel-hungry motorists and truckers, plus the usual thrill-seeking teenagers. Dozens of people were hospitalized, one with a gunshot wound, storefront windows were smashed, two service stations vandalized and firemen attending a burning auto were pelted with rocks and beer cans.

The social fabric of this society is stretched tauter than any time in a decade. Even with people being killed in gasoline lines and gunshots ripping through truck cabs, of course, we are still a long way from, say, 1968, with slums aflame and campuses everywhere erupting. American society survived that and will survive this. The difference is that the disruptions of the 1960s really did have roots deep in the culture. The long hot summer of 1979 is entirely needless, even silly.

The gasoline lines, with their inconveniences and distempers, could be abolished overnight, literally with the stroke of a pen. President Carter need only exercise his authority to lift price controls from gasoline, which would also abolish the Department of Energy system of allocating gasoline supplies.

Once dealers were free to bid against each other for available supplies, the price mechanism would automatically direct supplies into any locality where heavy demand suddenly erupted. Learning that gasoline will be expensive but at least available, motorists will stop topping off tanks. The problem of lines will go away.

By now, of course, the big trucking companies have grown comfortable with the ICC, acquiring a vested interest in its denials of entry that limit competition. (The big oil companies are well along the same route with DOE.) So while the truckers have your attention, they are also opposing truck deregulation efforts being led by President Carter and Senator Kennedy.

The President and the Senator are right. Open price competition not only makes the best use of the nation’s economic resources, it also avoids the kind of social disruption that results when the allocation of diesel fuel has to be decided in a political joust between truckers and farmers.

Classical economists used to list among the virtues of the price mechanism that it avoided social strife. It did not set group against group, they taught. In our lifetime, we have protected the poor with income transfers to insure a minimum standard of living, but we have generally allowed prices to allocate goods among different end uses. It has worked so smoothly we did not understand what the classical economists meant; today we see. In addition to its economic virtues, the price mechanism is a vital buffer of civility.

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