Here’s the very latest warning from Capitol Hill: “If a few great oil companies are permitted to manipulate prices for the next few years as they have been doing since 1920,” a Senate committee wrote, “the people of this country must be prepared before long to pay at least a dollar a gallon for gasoline.” Oops, sorry -- my mistake. That’s not a new report, it’s one written by Sen. Robert La Follette in 1923.
Oh, here’s a more recent example: “The American people want to know why oil companies are making soaring profits,” Sen. Henry (Scoop) Jackson said. “The American people want to know if this so-called energy crisis is only a pretext, a cover to eliminate the major source of price competition.” Oops again. That’s from 1974, not today.Ah, here it is. The House of Representatives is considering the Federal Price Gouging Prevention Act (H.R. 1252), a measure that would supposedly “protect consumers from price-gouging of gasoline and other fuels.”
The law claims it would do this by making it “unlawful for any person to sell crude oil, gasoline, natural gas, or petroleum distillates at a price that—(A) is unconscionably excessive; or (B) indicates the seller is taking unfair advantage unusual market conditions (whether real or perceived) or the circumstances of an emergency to increase prices unreasonably.”
Maybe lawmakers ought to apply the same restrictions to other products. Some of us might find it “unconscionably excessive” that Starbucks charges the same amount for a 20-ounce cup of coffee that a consumer would pay at a supermarket for an entire can of coffee, one that will make dozens of cups. We might also find it “unconscionably excessive” that the same supermarket charges $1.25 for a bottle of the same water we can get direct from a tap for pennies. Talk about a markup.
There’s a lesson here, if lawmakers will learn it. The federal government has failed -- badly -- to regulate gasoline prices before, and if it tries again it will fail again. That’s because it’s virtually impossible to beat a market economy.
In a free market, consumers get to decide what they’ll pay for a product. If the price is too high, they won’t buy it. Few people owned plasma televisions when they cost $6,000, but as the price has plunged, such TVs have become more common.