PRESIDENT CARTER is the candidate who was nominated and elected on the get-the-government- out-of-our-hair platform.That makes his deepening entanglement in the gasoline allocation system either poignant or comic, depending on the degree of your sympathy for him. But it also tells you something about the confusion and loss of direction among the people who hired Mr. Carter for the job -- the voters, who are also the consumers and the motorists.
They made it clear in the 1976 election that they thought there was too much government interference in their lives, and too much federal regulation. Now, caught in a gasoline shortage, they are confronted inescapably with a question that requires a response by the nation as community. It requires decisions on sharing, and on priorities. It requires a definition of what's fair. The currently prevailing idea of fairness requires a lot of regulation and a lot of standing in line.
So far as Mr. Carter's efforts are concerned, most people will judge his energy policy by one simple criterion -- its effect on the length of the gasoline lines. But he can do very little to increase the supply of gasoline in the months ahead. Saudi Arabia can do something about it. But even higher Saudi production will bring only partial relief -- and would leave this country more perilously dependent on Saudi good will than ever.
The gasoline allocation system now in effect is already creaking and groaning under its own weight. It will probably collapse altogether before long. Perhaps it was necessary to try allocations, and demonstrate that they won't work, before the country was ready to try anything else. But there's no consensus on what comes next.
Meanwhile, a few filling stations around New York are selling gasoline, imported from Europe, at twice the domestic price. It brings to mind the Eastern European retail system, where some shops sell at the controlled prices, with long lines and frequent shortages, while other shops swll at much higher prices, in hard currencies, with loaded shelves and no waiting. Are we going to see a dual gasoline market with no lines for those who are ready to pay wild prices -- in, shall we say, Swiss francs?
The country, in its present mood, resents government regulation but has so far refused to try deregulation. When in doubt, Mr. Carter might usefully recall the attitudes that elected him. If the country is fed up with gasoline lines, why not end the price controls that are causing them?