It is disappointing to find someone as well-informed about the American economic system as Hobart Rowen joining the chorus demanding an investigation of "gouging" by a "greedy" oil industry {op-ed, Aug. 8}.

For the man on the street, of course, it is as natural as breathing to condemn price increases, markets being as little understood in Topeka as in Leningrad or Warsaw. Market prices respond to changes in anticipations of future demand and supply. When Saddam Hussein's troops crossed into Kuwait the world situation changed drastically, and so did assessments of next month's crude oil price. The price of gasoline shot up not because of greed -- sellers always sell for the highest price that is prudent -- but because events signaled to sellers that existing stocks of gasoline were truly more precious than they were the day before. (A calmer reassessment may cause prices to fall.)

Americans are good at praising the market in the abstract and enjoying its fruits. Price flexibility is great when it means a bargain for the consumer. But let a crisis drive prices up -- doing society the favor of forcing consumers to think "conservation" and "substitute" and calling forth alternative supply sources -- and people scream for the attorney general to investigate. Mr. Rowen should be helping to instruct citizens about the market system, not stampeding with the pack. STUART G. SCHMID McLean

I cannot believe the griping, whining and bickering that is going on in the media and Congress about a few pennies more per gallon of gas we will have to pay at the pump.

During a crisis of vital interest to our nation, all we can think of is to preserve the lowest gas prices in the Western world for ourselves. It would be utter folly to sell our reserve at low prices now. High prices encourage conservation, and it is about time we do some of that.

Our political leaders sat on their hands during the 1980s when they were afraid to raise taxes on imported oil, which would have reduced imports, encouraged domestic production, conservation and alternative energy sources -- not to mention possibly reducing the budget deficit. They try to make political hay by whipping up consumer angst. If they had acted responsibly then, maybe there would not be so much room for oil companies to make windfall profits now.

It would be reassuring to know that our elected representatives could, at least during a crisis, develop a perspective that goes beyond the next election.

BARBARA MCPHERSON Washington