During the gasoline shortage that began in 1979, motorists were often waiting in long lines of cars at filling stations -- sometimes for hours -- in hopes of reaching the pump before the gas ran out. The ways that Ted Kennedy and Ronald Reagan proposed to deal with this situation speaks volumes about the difference between the left and the right.
Senator Kennedy said: "We must adopt a system of gasoline rationing without delay," in "a way that demands a fair sacrifice from all Americans."
Ronald Reagan said that we must get rid of price controls on petroleum, so that there won't be a shortage in the first place. One of his first acts after becoming president was to end federal price controls. Lines at filling stations disappeared.
Despite angry outcries from liberals that gas prices would skyrocket as Big Oil "gouged" the public, in reality prices came down within months and continued falling for years. More taxes were piled onto gasoline by the government but the real cost of the gas itself hit a new low by 1993.
"Fairness" is one of the great mantras of the left. Since everyone has his own definition of fairness, that word is a blank check for the expansion of government power. What "fairness" means in practice is that third parties -- busybodies -- can prevent mutual accommodations by others.
Busybodies not only prevent farmers from selling their land to people who would build housing on it, they prevent people on waiting lists for organ transplants from paying someone to donate a kidney or a liver that can be the difference between life and death.
Like Ted Kennedy, the organ donation bureaucracy is preoccupied with imposing their notions of fairness on people who are on waiting lists. And, like Senator Kennedy, they have no interest in freeing people to reduce or eliminate the shortage, which could make fairness in rationing a moot issue.
Such thinking -- or lack of thinking -- is not new. Back in the 18th century, Adam Smith wrote of politicians who devote "a most unnecessary attention" to things that would work themselves out better in a free market.
What is conventionally called "the free market" is in reality free people making their own mutual accommodations with other free people. It is one of the many tactical mistakes of conservatives to use an impersonal phrase to describe very personal choices and actions by people when they are not hamstrung by third parties.
When the issue is posed as "the free market" versus "compassion for the poor," which do you think is likely to win out?
Our bloated and ever-growing welfare state -- from which the poor get a very small share, by the way -- answers that question.