THIS WEEK'S gasoline-rationing plan is a monument to American indecision and to congressional cynicism. Its advantage, from the congressional point of view, is that it evades the necessity for any serious action to cut gasoline consumption. But its danger is that, contrary to everybody's intentions and expectations, through miscalculation, the thing might actually be put into effect.
It has been obvious since the 1973 Arab oil embargo that this country is going to have to reduce the vast quantities of oil that it uses. The only real questions are how to do it and who will bear the burden. There's still no answer. That's why the embargo passed without any lasting effect on American oil consumption. That's why Congress forced President Ford to retreat from his tax on oil imports in 1975. That's why Congress took 18 months to pass President Carter's 1977 energy program, after deleting most of its major provisions.
Americans use more oil than is good for the national interest because it is perilously cheap. Successive administrations have sought to apply the self-evident remedy, but Congress will have none of it. Deliberately raising oil and gasoline taxes seems to most congressmen unspeakably cruel. They demand social justice.
But what if there's a real shortage? Congress likes the idea of rationing; Congress has the dim and unexamined idea that rationing is somehow fairer. In 1975 Congress demanded that the administration -- then Mr. Ford's -- prepare a rationing plan within six months. Both the Ford and Carter administrations considered the idea bad in principle and unworkable in practice. They dragged their feet. Finally, this winter, the Iranian revolution having diminshed the world's oil supply sharply, Congress began hammering on the Department of Energy to produce a plan. That is how it comes to be published now.
Speaking of social justice, the ration books under this plan would be issued to cars rather than to people. A family with three cars gets three books, a family with one car gets one book. But that's only the beginning. Knowing from the World War II experience that the black market in coupons would be uncontrollable, the Department of Energy -- like its predecessors in the previous administrations -- proposes to let people buy and sell coupons freely and legally. If you have a business and need to make more deliveries than your ration provides, you'll have to buy coupons from other people. If you want to drive to Wyoming for your vacation, you can buy the coupons. What might the price of those coupons be? Nobody knows. In a market driven by shortage, speculation and panic, it could go high enough to create economic havoc. It is an income-redistribution device of incalculable dimensions -- and yet one that largely omits the poor. Very few poor people have cars.
But the central defect of this reliance on rationing is deeper. It lies in the tacit but powerful suggestion that any shortage will be merely a passing emergency. Rationing is a short-term expedient -- another whispered assurance from your government that nothing profound or permanent has to change.
The choice for Americans is the same one that they have confronted for the past five or six years. Congress can raise oil prices with higher taxes, and recirculate the money to the American public. Or it can continue to leave pricing up to the OPEC governments, with a steadily rising outflow of wealth aggravating unemployment here and eroding the value of the dollar. The United States can again try to construct an effective program of restraint on oil imports. Or it can continue to leave the decisions up to OPEC, the Saudi government, the Ayatollah Khomeini, and the young men with Kalashnikov machine guns who seem to be taking an increasing interest in Middle Eastern oil policies.