Paul Jacob

Weeks before the show trial — er, I mean public grilling — House Speaker Dennis Hastert stated that any oil company that "price gouges" will "be prosecuted." Prosecuted for what? Setting a price on their own products? Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist went on record with a sillier statement, saying "those who abuse the free enterprise system to advantage themselves and their businesses at the expense of all Americans, they ought to be exposed. . . ."

But wait: In markets (a) we sell things for our advantage; and (b) others buy them at their expense.

So why carp? Both parties gain. Consumers wouldn't buy if they didn't gain something better for each transaction. That's free enterprise. Expose that.

It's what makes America great. Not the grandstanding of Senators.

After the hearing, Bill Frist expressed some frustration. He still didn't get it. The executives, he charged, did not "adequately answer the question of whether the sky-high gas prices we saw earlier this fall were entirely justified." Oh, great. He thinks the Senate's job is to determine "the just price" of goods — a hoary economic chimera that begets gross folly such as wage and price controls. Which lead to shortages, sometimes quite catastrophic. Which lead to more government regulation. More catastrophe. And more government. We've been through this before. With each government-induced crisis, government grows . . . out of control of the citizenry. Beyond reason.

Haven't we learned anything from (to quote the title of a good little book) "forty centuries of wage and price controls"? Apparently not. The Republican Majority leader went on to wonder about whether the companies' "profit margins are appropriate given the hardships energy consumers are facing and will continue to face this winter."

What does this mean?

Frist is suggesting that success in the marketplace should only be tolerated in good times, not in war, not after hurricanes. The very meaning of a "fair-weather friend"!

If the oil companies — or grocers or car dealers, or anyone else — isn't offering their product or service for a price low enough to suit Congress, then I suggest congressmen do something practical: step down and start a business that will offer a lower price. It's called freedom.

We need that freedom, which means markets unhampered in bad times as well as in good. Price controls and witch hunts don't have the consequences we want. (Unless we are power-hungry politicians.)

What don't we need? Fair-weather friends, bad-weather enemies like Republican congressional leaders Frist and Hastert.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.