- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 28, 2005

With oil prices passing a record-breaking $60 per barrel and heading higher, the word “crisis” is used and all sorts of political “solutions” are 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? Will we either solve the oil problem or see it destroy us economically?

Political and media definitions of “crisis” are much looser than the dictionary’s definition. In political semantics, the word “crisis” has come to mean any situation someone wants to use to justify something that will be called a “solution.” Crises are a dime a dozen by political and media definitions.

Almost as common are conspiracy theories. When gasoline prices shoot up, California Sen. Barbara Boxer can be relied on to demand an investigation of the oil companies. That previous investigations found no conspiracies does not deter her.

Why, then, are oil prices so high?

There is no esoteric reason. It is plain old supply and demand. With the economies of huge nations like China and India developing more rapidly, their markets freed from many stifling government controls, more oil is demanded in the world market and there are few new sources.

What should our government do?

We will be lucky if it does nothing. But, with congressional elections coming next year, that is very unlikely. Candidates for Congress next year and presidential hopefuls eyeing 2008 are virtually guaranteed to promote all sorts of “solutions.”

These “solutions” will be packaged as brilliant new ideas, courageous and farsighted. But most will be retreads of old ideas still untested or tested in the past and found wanting.

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

The last time we had gasoline price controls , we had long lines of cars at filling stations, sometimes stretching around the block, with motorists waiting in those lines for hours.

That nonsense ended almost overnight when President Ronald Reagan, ignoring the cries of liberal politicians and the liberal media, ended price controls with a stroke of the pen.

What happened usually happens when government restrictions end: More oil was produced. In fact, the 1980s became known as the era of an “oil glut” and gasoline prices declined.

Today production is held back not by price controls but political hysteria when anyone suggests we produce more oil ourselves. Organized nature cults go ballistic at the thought we might drill for oil in some remote part of Alaska 99 percent of Americans will never see, including 99 percent of the nature cultists.

People used to ask if there is any sound when a tree falls in an empty forest. Today, there are deafening political sounds over oil-drilling in an empty wilderness.

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

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 we can only do the things that are in vogue among nature cultists and the politicians who cater to them, 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 individually their own way as oil prices rise. But that also is politically unlikely.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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