PERHAPS YOU wondered whether it's worth getting excited about President Ford's last-minute move to decontrol gasoline prices. The short answer is no - save your energy for something that matters. This one is a battle with wooden swords. Mr. Ford was making a gesture toward the principles of limited government and free markets and so forth. The Democrats in Congress (the more susceptible one, at any rate) are, meanwhile, panting with indignation at his fell attempt to deliver the American motorist into the vampire embrace of the Great Oil Trust. We are dealing here, as you may have perceived, with economic regulation as Grand Opera.
The reality is more interesting. The actual price of gasoline bounces around well below the ceiling that he price controls set. Selling gasoline is pretty competitive, and the oil companies have found that they lose customers when their prices go as high as the requlations permit. The truly effective restraint on the price of gasoline and all other oil products is the federal control of the price of crude oil. Mr. Ford's gasoline proposal would not affect the price controls on crude oil at all.
The decontrol of gasoline is before Congress under a provision that permits it to take effect only if neither house objects. Presumably there will be race now to see which can object first. That's splended. Our advice to any senator or congressman is to vote against this decontrol plan, loudly and with much accompanying rhetoric. The reason is that this country will shortly have to raise its gasoline prices and taxes deliberately and substantially. That is essential to any serious national energy program. If President Carter proceeds with his promise of an energy policy capable of protecting economic stability and national security, congressmen - and the rest of us - are going to have to get used to the idea of gasoline that costs over a dollar a gallon. Better to establish a clear and firm posture as the motorist's friend now, for some very awkward votes lie not far ahead.
It would be a sorry judgment on this country, after all, if it decided that cheap gasoline is too pleasant a luxury to be dispensed with. This is especially true since gasoline consumption in this country is again rising rapidly, along with our dependence on the governments of the Persian Gulf and the price of imported oil. Let's not pretend that we're talking about genuine social hardship. The poor don't do much driving. But they need to keep warm like everyone else, and Congress acquiesced quietly last year in a previous Ford proposal to decontrol home heating oil. As for economic impact, heavy industrial fuels are not controlled. Is gasoline alone to be sacrosanct?