Goodness, gracious, what a lot of space is being given to news reports about the Great Gasoline Crisis of 1979.

The reports fall into two categories: Stories about what has been happening, and stories about why it has been happening.

The first category is not very newsy. It tells us that when people hear about a possible shortage, they panic and buy up as much as they can. In doing that, they make a shortage unavoidable, of course. And they know it. But they do it anyhow.

When people see a line, they often feel a compulsion to get into it. Remember what happened on the home front during World War II? Men and women who didn't smoke stood in line to buy cigarettes. People got into lines without even knowing what was being sold at the head end. It made no difference to them. If anything seem likely to be in short supply, they wanted some.

Little has changed since those days. In fact, the situation may be somewhat worse now.

During wartime, people motivated by patriotism try to "make it do and do without." During peacetime, it's every man for himself. Word that slightly less gasoline would be available this summer sent millions of Americans into a frenzy of activity aimed at getting just a little bit more than their fair share.

Yes, a few people did begin to look for ways to reduce their use of gasoline and other forms of energy, but most didn't. The predominant reaction was: "This so-called shortage is a phony. There's no need for conservation; there's just a challenge to my ingenuity. It's up to me to find ways to prevent this nonsense from interfering with my normal life style."

Example: People bought up every gasoline storage can they could find. Their purpose: To stock up on gasoline "before the hoarders get it all." The result in all too many cases will be fires and explosions that will do untold damage to lives and property.

Example: Auto owners began patronizing rent-a-car companies in their own home towns. Their objectives: To use the rent-a-car company's gas and conserve their own.

Example: People began buying used cars of dubious reliability. Their reason: To qualify for an extra allotment of gasoline in the event rationing goes into effect.

So, as I noted at the outset, reports on what's been happening are rather routine. People are approaching this problem as red-blooded, greedy human beings always approach such problems.

Explanations of why there is a gas shortage are so varied they would be funny if the situation were not so grim. The oil companies tell you about the long interruption to supplies from Iran, about decreased production in may OPEC nations, about hoarding, and about motorists who "top off" their tanks.

There is just enough truth to each of these excuses to make one wonder whether all of them together really add up to a legitimate explanation of the shortfall.

But the average American tends to sweep aside all these alibis and say, "Baloney. When the price gets high enough, there will be plenty of oil for everybody. We'll have gasoline running out of our ears."

They believe in the laws of economics.They believe what the textbooks say" that when demand is greater than supply, prices rise. Higher prices mean higher profits. Higher profits persuade producers to expand production. New producers enter the field. Supplies rise.

Good news? Oh, no. As supply becomes greater than demand, competition among producers becomes sharper. Producers begin cutting prices in an attempt to find buyers for their surplus. Lower prices drive marginal producers out of business and cause others to cut back production. Supply drops until it is again less than demand. This drives prices up.

Then it starts over. Everybody gets one more ride on the economic cycle.

It's all right there in the textbooks. As Casey Stengel used to say, you can look it up if you don't believe me. The problem is that somebody repealed the law of economics while we weren't looking. Prices have been going straight up at the same time that supplies have been going straight down. The higher the price goes, the less gas there is.

This makes a fellow wonder whether the textbooks are always right. It also makes one wonder whether those fine, red-blooded, greedy oil barons will suddenly discover more oil right after the price of gasoline reaches the American motorist's choking point.