IN RESPONSE to the latest increase in the price of Saudi Arabia's oil, most Americans will probably feel only helpless exasperation. As everybody knows, a tightly organized international cartel -- OPEC: the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries -- has seized control of world oil prices and pushed them to unjust and artifically high levels.
But the things that everybody knows to be true sometimes turn out to be wrong. Let's consider a disenting view -- that OPEC, the alleged cartel, currently has no control over the price of oil, which is being set by market forces very much like those setting, for example, the price of wheat. There is, in fact, a strong parallel between the operation of the oil market and the wheat market. From the American persepctive, that parallel doesn't attract much attention -- perhaps because this country imports oil while it exports wheat. When the price of oil quadrupled in the early 1970s, it seemed self-evident to most Americans that the cartel must have been responsible. How could it have happened otherwise? But when the price of wheat tripled in the early 1970s, that was the normal working of the market, and Americans shrugged. From the point of view of those countries unfortunate enough to import both food and fuel, the difference was less evident.
Is OPEC's present price artifically high? First of all, there isn't an OPEC price. The 13 governments that make up OPEC are quarreling among themselves and selling oil at prices ranging from the Saudis' $30 a barrel to the Nigerians' and Algerians' $37. The OPEC average is around $32. But some oil-exporting countries don't belong to OPEC -- Britain, Norway, Canada, Mexico and the Soviet Union, among others.The average among the non -OPEC exporters is over $35 a barrel. If OPEC has rigged the market, why is its price lower than the competition?
OPEC, as an independent organization, might be described as occasionally influential but not, at present, in control of anything. In that first great surge of oil prices seven years ago, it gave several small countries the courage to persist in a daring strategy. It is a forum for negotiating and for sharing information. In slack times, it has tried to discouage price shaving. But the basic reason for the enormous price rises of the 1970s was not OPEC. It was the world's collision with the inherent limits of a natural resource.
There is a tendancy in the United States to regard OPEC as an enemy and the cause of the country's economic troubles. In fact, there is no reason to think that, if OPEC were to vanish tomorrow, the price of oil would change by a nickel. That price is now being sustained by the buyers and what they are willing to pay -- just as the price of wheat is. If the buyers of oil do not want to pay still more in the future, they will have to find ways to live with still less of the commodity than OPEC's members sell.