THE SHORTAGE of gasoline is reported to be more severe at the service station than at the refinery. In the United States there are lines of drivers trying to buy gas-but not in Europe. Sen. Kennedy, at the Howard University commencement on Saturday, explained that the Carter administration's energy policies aggrandize corporate power while crushing the poor. What's the citizen to make all this-that there really is a great villainous plot to constrict the nation's gasoline supply? The answer is no, but you can hardly make it out amidst the cacophony of conlficting statistics and opinions.
The world is now getting a little less oil than it expected, for reasons that go back to the Iranian revolution. The reduction is small. It could almost be described by saying that the customers are merely not getting the increases that they had been taking for granted. But not being able to get those increases surprises and frightens people, inducing some of them to grab and hoard. This country is now going through a first panicky reaction to the first mild effects of the limited oil supplies that government around the world have been predicting for the past five years.
It would be nice to hear Sen. Kennedy acknowledge that the behavior of American consumers-not just the corporations and the producers, but all of us-has a great deal to do with the present supply squeezes and soaring prices. Over the years American consumers have got used to he idea that they could count on steadily rising purchases, at low and stable prices, of other countries' oil. The other countries-from Kuwait to Mexico and from Iraq to Canada-are now being heard from. The senator calls for continued price controls on oil and gasoline to protect the impoverished and elderly. That is a defensible position only if you are ready to concede that it implies less gasoline sold at the filling staions, and still longer lines.
Why no lines at most of Europe's filling stations? Because after the Arab embargo five years ago, the government of every major industrial country, with the single exception of the United States, reacted with tough and unsentimental resolution to hold down its dependence. All of them are now still at or even below their 1973 levels of imports. Over the past five years, through higher prices and government intervention, they have destroyed the public assumption of steadily increasing oil supplies. It is only the United States that remains to make that adjustment. Why? Perhaps because the government of Western Europe and Japan are run by people familiar with World War II and the decade of extreme privation that followed it, who do not confuse the present mild stringency in the gasoline market with real social hardship.
How long will the present tight market last, with all the lines and delays and harassment? It depends on uncertainties like the course of Middle Easter politics and decisions yet to be made in a dozen capitals. There is only one part of the balance that Americans can control and that is thier own consumption of oil. If people decide to cut back on oil use, the market will get slack, the pressure for higher prices will evaporate, and the struggle for limited supplies will relax. That's roughly what's happened in Europe.
There is no virue in underestimating the anxiety and disruption that this gasoline shortage is imposing on people: Most people's daily lives require assured availability of gasoline, and the current squeeze hurts. And it is no doubt also true that, at this very moment, there are a thousand vile and nefarious plots (at least) working, as traders and dealers and-yes-consumers maneuver to protect themselves and take advantage of the coming rises in price. But none of that, unfortunately, can explain or alter or eliminate the basis fact: that there is no possible relief that does no require, first of all, breaking the national habit of using steadily more oil and more gasoline. No law and no presidential policy will do that for us. Americans-all of us-are going to have to do it for ourselves.