Sunday, April 27, 2008

My Op-Ed in Sunday's Herald-Sun

Sunday, Apr 27, 2008

Mike Munger: Government shouldn't subsidize gasoline

I was doing a live television interview. An earnest young woman had a question: "I'm a student, and I have a lot of bills. I'm finding it harder and harder to buy gas for my car. As governor, what would you do to cut gas prices for students like me?"

This question is common, but still my mind raced: What could she possibly mean? No one, not the president, not even Coach K or ol' Roy, can control gas prices. Further, as a matter of policy, our gas prices are, if anything, too low. The only way people are going to cut back on carbon emissions, and use less oil, is if gas prices rise and we all have real incentives to conserve.

So, I gave my usual answer: "Thanks for the question! I think our real problem isn't gas prices. It's gravity. It's not fair that I can't dunk a basketball, since I'm 6 foot 1. And lots of other North Carolinians are short, and couldn't dunk if they had a trampoline. So, I'm proposing a selective suspension of gravity, with short or non-jumping people getting the biggest boost."

OK, I didn't really say that, but I wish I had. Because the idea of legislating gravity is just as sensible as suspending the laws of supply and demand in fuel markets.

Instead, the caller got my sympathy for her plight, and my hope that she found a way to pay her bills. I also hinted that higher fuel prices would have a positive effect, leading folks to conserve more. Later, commenters on the TV station's Web site suggested I was "insensitive." One writer accused me of having "never had to worry about money yourself."

My responses: First, when I went to college, it's true that I didn't have to worry about high gas prices. I was too poor to own a car.

Second, on a broader level, the young woman was falling into a strange logical trap, believing that some mythical being called "the state" was somehow responsible for her money troubles. Fortunately, this kindly giant also happened to have enough money lying around to help pay her bills.

Our delusion about "the state" was first noted by French economist Frederic Bastiat. "The State is the great fiction through which each of us tries to live at the expense of all of us," he said. In other words, the state taxes each of us for revenue, then gives each of us back more than we paid in.

Of course, it's true that anyone would be better off if the state would give us other peoples' money. In the young woman's mind, the fact that she had less money than she wanted meant that someone should give her more. In the commenters' minds, the fact that I did not credit this premise meant that I was insensitive and removed from the needs of real people.

That's nonsense. The main need of real people right now is to find a way to increase the fuel efficiency of their transportation. High prices reflect increased scarcity. We need to react quickly, not slow things down by forcing prices downward. I'm not a fan of gas taxes, or other excise taxes as a way of coercing behavior the government happens to admire. But I'm also opposed, for the same reasons, to subsidies that keep gas prices artificially low, and enable behavior we abhor.

The U.S. has huge corporate tax giveaways built into our tax codes, in the form of oil depletion allowances and accelerated depreciation on capital stock in drilling and exploration. And thousands of our young men and women are fighting, and dying in a war in a region whose only strategic significance is its hold on our oil supply.

So, to the young lady who called in, and to all the rest of you wanting to know how the state is going to support your addiction to driving inefficient, polluting moving mountains of iron and plastic: Get over it. There is nothing anyone can do. In fact, there is nothing anyone should do.

There is something you can do, though. Trade in your gas guzzler on a more efficient car. Change your driving habits. Ride a bike. Or don't. But then don't ask how other taxpayers can be forced to support your senseless, selfish addiction. There is no constitutional right to spend other peoples' money for your gasoline expenses.

Besides, it wouldn't work anyway. We might as well vote to reduce gravity.

Mike Munger is chair of political science at Duke University. He is the Libertarian Party nominee for governor in the 2008 election.

© 2008 by The Durham Herald Company. All rights reserved.


Allen Dalton said...

Well, if I lived in NC you'd have my vote!

br said...

It's one thing when po folks want the state to subsidize gas or takeover healthcare, but I hear a lot of people who make >$80K saying it without any mention of altruism.

Since the average HOUSEHOLD income is ~$40K, I'd guess any individual making over about $35K would actually be paying more for government sponsored gas, healthcare, etc.

Some folks just seem to believe the government is a big collective annuity (which it could be), but unfortunately it's much more like a mandatory savings account with a negative interest rate.