ON THE SUBJECT of gasoline, this country is genuinely a little crazy. Even our best friends - Saudi Arabia, for example - are beginning to notice it. If you listened to all of the shrieks and groans from Congress you might think that gasoline was not only the most cherished necessity of American life, but also perhaps the only necessity of life. Sen. Henry Jackson, chairman of the energy committee, is merely the latest in a long list of eminent Americans to start talking as though cheap gasoline were guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.
Perhaps what President Carter wants from Congress is just too hard. Perhaps it's impossible for a democracy as loose-jointed and intricately balanced as outs to raise prices as a deliberate act of policy. The President wants to get gasoline prices up for the best or reasons - to protect the national economy and the national security. He'd rather have the price increases rebated to American taxpayers than to foreign oil producers. But whatever the logic of his energy program in general, just about every voter can think of a reason why it shouldn't apply to him.
In this energy plan, Mr. Carter and his staff have been thinking like economists. They propose to arrange prices and taxes so that each consumer will find it in his own interest to do what the government wants him to do. But congressmen tend to think like lawyers. They prefer setting rules and standards, which they can then embroider with infinite exceptions and variations to accommodate all sorts of special circumstances and claims of unfairness.
Suppose, for example, that a foresighted President in 1972 had announced that the national interest required a 50 per cent increase in food prices over the next five years. That hypothetical President might well have argued that the increase was necessary to give American farmers an adequate return and to increase this country's food exports. What do you think the congressional reaction would have been? Senators would immediately have told large audiences that the whole idea was politically impossible and, as a matter of principle, deeply unfair to the American public. Numerous committees would have charged that farmers were deliberately withholding agricultural production by refusing to plant all of their land.
The consumer would clearly have been entitled to a rebate on the rise of the price of bread, which is the staff of life, but what about salami and soda pop? Certainly the citizen would have to get a credit on his income tax as compensation for the rising prices of hamburger and beans, which are basic nutrition, but should the credit also be extended to frills like tenderloin with mushrooms? Should the average American family be required to carry the full brunt of a higher cost of chicken, resulting from increased soybean exports?
These issues of social justice are very difficult - so difficult, in fact, that our political system would have jammed and never arrived at answers to all. Perhaps it's just as well that, in May 1972, neither Congress nor anyone else knew what was ahead for food prices. But, as it happens, food prices over these past five years have risen a little over 50 per cent, just like gasoline. And, just like gasoline, they show every indication of continuing to rise. Food prices are genuinely uncontrollable. But as for fuel prices, which are currently both more instable and more dangerous, the country now has a real opportunity to administer the increases, with calculation, for the public's benefit. The chief obstacle is the profoundly nutty American conviction that, unlike groceries, the price of gasoline is somehow sacred.