IN THE YEAR 1612, a Venetian named Traiano Boccalini published a jaundiced commentary on government, as his republic was then suffering it. It seems that the god Apollo noted the deplorable state into which mankind has fallen and decided that the time had come, as the Carter administration would say, for comprehensive reform. He appinted a commision of wise men, according to Boccalini, and asked their views. One of them argued that the evils of the times were caused by hyrpocrisy and lying - the reader will recognize the credility gap - and he proposed to cut a small window into each person's breast. If the world could see the inner workings of every heart, truth and candor would be the rule. The idea was greatly applauded until someone pointed out that, if everyone knew the hidden intentions of the politicians, the government would become impossible.
The next thougt was to combat envy and greed by sharing all goods equally. That one did not survive much discussion, for reasons no less obvious then than now. The various bright ideas of the other wise men "were also all found to be impracticable" - we quote the historian Frnaces Yates, who knows Bocalini better than we do - ". . . and the reformers abandoned their larger plans for a general reformation of the whole world and confined themselves to regulating the prices of cabbages, sprats and pumpkins."
That, we think, is not a bad metaphor for the American debate over oil and the energy bill. It began with that ringing presidential appeal for a mighty, uplifting demonstration of national will in which every citizen would take part. That was the significance of the phrase, lately much derided, about the moral equivalent of war. But then the presidential attention wandered and Congress fell into bottomless bickering. Within the past few days there have been several developments - all minor, but all indicative - that the bill has arrived at the cabbages, sprats and pumpkins stage of deliberations.
The Department of Energy has just published a standby plan for gasoline rationing in an emergency - for example, another oil embargo. The ration coupons could be bought and sold legally at whatever price the market might bear. The free-market price of the coupon would make gasoline costs as much as if it were simply decontrolled. Why not merely decontrol it, and set a windfall-profits tax to pick up the excessive gains? The answer is that, while Congress does not like the consequences of a controlled gasoline market, neither does it like the consequences of an uncontrolled market. The result is an absurd straddle.
Meanwhile the interminable Senate-House conference on the energy bill has burst into a new quarrel over inefficient cars that use too much fuel. SOme want to discourage them by taxing them, while others want to prohibit them by regulation. As fast as the conferees knit up one end of the energy bill, the other end comes unraveled again.
The conference recently came to a compromise on the central issue of decontrolling natural-gas prices. But now the Independent Petroleum Association, representing most of the putatibe beneficiaries of this compromise, has denounced the bill and decided to fight it. The association charges that the formula in aunconscionably complex, establishing 17 different price categories as an interim step toward a final decontrol, which, the industry suspects, will never arrive.
Back to Boccalini: He lived and wrote in the years when Venice's centuries of brilliant prosperity were ending, and the dire decline of the 17th century was beginning. We do not care for historical analogies, nor do we find much of a parallel between that period and ours. But it seems to be a fairly consistent rule that events deal harshly with republics that can not make up their minds.