Other than being over age 25 and a resident and citizen of the state, there are no qualifications to be a Member of Congress. If you can get the votes, you can become a Member. Yet anyone listening to recent discussions on Capitol Hill about gasoline prices can be forgiven for assuming hubris and economic ignorance are also required.
A headline-making exchange between Representative Maxine Waters and John Hofmeister, president of Shell Oil Company is just the latest and most egregious example. During questioning, Rep. Waters asked the oil executive to “guarantee” that the price of oil will go down if oil companies are granted authority to drill off U.S. shores. When Mr. Hofmeister failed to offer such a guarantee, Representative Waters issued a threat: “And guess what this liberal would be all about? This liberal would be all about socialize…basically taking over and the government running all of your companies.”
It’s a breathtaking moment of honesty from a member of Congress. So much for concerns about the limits of government authority; so much for respect for private property and free enterprise. Rep. Waters shares the worldview of most of the world’s dictators: if industry can’t produce the desired results, then government should simply seize their property.
Beyond the totalitarian impulse, the exchange reveals Ms. Waters’s ignorance about the role prices play in the economy. In a free market, prices help ensure that supply meets demand. The demand for energy has been growing, not just here in the United States but around the world. Unless supply keeps pace with demand, prices must rise. Rising prices send important signals to both consumers and producers: high prices offer producers an incentive to invest in producing more supply, while consumers are encouraged to buy only what is necessary, preventing shortages. The oil executive cannot promise that the prices will be lower in the future because he cannot know exactly how much demand will increase compared to supply.
Rep. Waters may think that if the federal government seized control of the energy industry, prices would fall, but she’d quickly learn (as did the Soviet bloc) that the laws of supply and demand are tough to escape.
Many will dismiss this exchange, made by one of the more radical, leftist Members, as out of step with the rest of the Majority. Yet the actual legislation that has been offered and passed in the name of bringing down oil prices reflects the same economic ignorance, and even shades of the same authoritarian impulse.