All Commentary
Friday, February 1, 1974

A Matter of Self-Responsibility

In the “good old days” of my boyhood on the farm, any fuel shortage we experienced was strictly our own fault. and the procedure to avoid or correct the situation was to get out the ax and crosscut saw, hitch a team, and head for the wood lot. It was no great trick for a couple of teenagers to make it home by nightfall with a cord of wood cut and split to stove size.

Fortunately, our neighbors didn’t mind if we sawed a fallen log or cut a crooked tree from our own woods. As long as we were in good health, they were perfectly willing to let us freeze if we didn’t want to chop wood. I should hastily add that they were always ready to lend a hand in any case of real need. Otherwise, they generally minded their own business and left ours to us. If there had been a thermostat in our house, we could have turned it to any setting we pleased. That is what I would call self-sufficiency on the energy front, but I’m not so sure it’s what the President has in mind for the United States by 1980. Nor would I advocate or vote for a reversion in 1974 to those good old days of each-to-his-own woodpile.

Let me make it perfectly clear that we had an alternative then; we could have purchased a load of coal from the “foreigner” five miles away at the nearest railroad siding. And I’m quite sure we would have availed ourselves of that opportunity if ever we had more money than time and enthusiasm for chopping wood. We weren’t being self-subsistent as a matter of principle — just lack of cash. More accurately, we didn’t have anything we were willing to offer that the coal dealer was willing to accept for a load of coal; so, we cut wood, if and when we had nothing better to do.

Most of us today have something “better to do,” which explains why we buy fuel in the form of oil or gas or electricity or whatever instead of chopping wood. We specialize, and we trade with “foreigners,” whether they be the neighbors next door, or the merchants in town, or the mail order houses in Chicago, or the shippers in London, or the suppliers of “black gold” in Saudi Arabia. We’re not exactly self-sufficient any more, not with respect to fuel or to hardly anything else we depend upon for our regular use. But that is not really the issue. The question is whether we are self-responsible. Is it my own problem if I want fuel, or is it the President’s problem?

There are stories about a couple of American Presidents who were pretty good at chopping wood. But I haven’t heard if one has done it lately. So, I’m beginning to think my fuel problem is a bit too important to turn over to the President. I’ll grind my ax and sharpen my saw, just in case I’m driven all the way back to self-subsistence.

What One Can Do to Try to Stop the Meddling

Hopefully, however, the market may not be closed entirely. Occasionally, perhaps, a friendly “foreigner” may be found willing to part with a bucket of coal, a tankful of gas or fuel oil, an hour or two of electrical current. As a potential customer, I can do my best not to antagonize any potential supplier. If I think his price is right, I can buy from him, which should make both of us happy. Otherwise, I can leave him alone —and cut wood if I’ve nothing better to do.

Beyond this, I can urge the President and everyone else not to antagonize my potential supplier. If I want to pay his price, I wish others would not try to forcibly take from him what I’ve freely paid — not even the part that might have been pure profit for him. Without that part, he isn’t going to be much of a future supplier for me.

More importantly, I can respectfully urge those meddlers not to set arbitrary price ceilings for me or my potential suppliers. For in that case, how could I possibly convince any supplier that he should be trying harder to increase the supply? After all, if there’s a shortage, lack of supply must be part of the problem. And the other part would be excessive demand, for which there is no better cure than higher price. So, price controls can only be described as one of the causes, certainly not a way to alleviate a shortage.

Good Neighbors

Getting back to the wood lot, I cannot recall ever having had our load hijacked on the way home by needy neighbors — or even by “foreigners.” No one ever forced us to deliver a fourth or a third or a half of each load to the White House for distribution among the poor. Hardly anyone was so poor that he couldn’t fetch his own wood. But if he just couldn’t make it, “Uncle Carl” or some other neighbor generally attended to the matter without bothering to call a committee meeting or make a Federal case of it.

In their “retirement” years, my parents rented a small farm house and a plot of “truck patch” or garden. This was part of a larger farm which boasted an oil well which, in turn, yielded a supply of natural gas that had been tapped as a source of heat and energy for the house. To the best of my knowledge, not once did the neighbors ever think of trying to tell the owner what to do with the gas or how much oil he could pump. In fact, I doubt very much that they helped drill the well in the first place. They simply minded their own business—cut their own wood. It’s not easy to find such “careless” neighbors any more.

I Cut the Tree

Recently, I confess, I chopped down our cherry tree. The poor thing had died. Somewhere in the neighborhood I suspect there lies a half-signed petition exhorting me to “cease and desist from destroying our natural environment.” Natural, my foot! You wouldn’t believe the hours of tender loving care the previous owner and I spent over a period of 30 years planting and feeding and spraying and pruning that sweet cherry in return for a week’s peek at springtime blossoms and an annual feast for the starlings at harvest time. Little do those potential petitioners know how often I’ve plotted — fruitlessly — to murder a starling.

I’ve often wondered whatever possessed George Washington to chop down a cherry tree; but, if he did such a thing, I’m willing to forgive him. I doubt that the matter merits Congressional investigation. I don’t believe for a minute that he was trying to take care of a national fuel shortage. But, if he were, and if it wasn’t his own cherry tree, perhaps there would have been reasonable grounds for impeachment.

I believe it is not the President’s place to tell me I have a fuel shortage, or to solve it for me, if I do. I’d rather he leave me alone, to chop wood if I choose, or to trade if I can with whomever is willing and able to supply fuel. The President’s job is to stop me if I lie or cheat or steal or defraud anyone to get what I want from others, and to stop others who might try such coercive tactics against me. But let his job end there, leaving all of us free to compete in the open market for the goods and services we want.

Closing the Market

When the President announces a goal of national self-sufficiency (independence) by 1980, he in effect is declaring war against the citizens of the U.S., implying that he intends to close the market at the national boundary lines as of that date. But he’s only concerned about oil, you say? And if that’s true, why would it be so? Is fuel more important than various minerals, foodstuffs, and numerous other items we now import? And what is it we are not to be allowed to export once we are not allowed to import oil? The President ought to know that imports are paid for with exports — and vice versa —just as in the case of voluntary exchange between any willing buyer and any willing seller, wherever each may live.

Oh, I see, payment would be made with money instead of goods! And what kind of money would that be? Money the seller is pleased to accept in trade? Or a piece of irredeemable paper that has been declared “legal tender”?

What the President has not explained to the American people is that our fuel shortage, like the recent grain shortage and meat shortage and other “failures of the market,” is really a monetary problem. When the U.S. gold window was closed to foreigners on August 15, 1971, when they were supposed to accept the irredeemable U. S. paper dollar as though it were good as gold, the American people suddenly were faced with a shortage of foreign suppliers. They’d rather have wheat or soybeans —or any commodity — rather than “paper gold.” Nor is it likely that any Secretary of Foreign Affairs is magician enough to restart the flow of “black gold” from the Mid-East if he has nothing better to offer in exchange than U. S. “legal tender.”

The sad truth is that foreigners cannot be bound by U. S. declarations of “legal tender.” They don’t have to supply goods and services to us at our ceiling prices in exchange for paper dollars. Unless we are willing and able to give in return as good as we get from them, then we need not wait until 1980 to be self-sufficient and independent. We are already. And isn’t it great to thus be allowed to queue up and wait for a supplier who’s been excluded from the market by our insistence on paying him with bad money?

Nor does such closure of the market occur only at national borders. To the extent that domestic price controls are imposed and enforced, they can make “foreigners” out of all potential suppliers of goods and services. No one is going to fill your gas tank voluntarily in exchange for unwanted “legal tender” — as devalued by him as it is by you, because he can’t buy much with it.

A Chilling Prospect

So, now we all are in a position to know how foolish it was of us over the past generation and longer to ask the government to solve our money shortages for us. The paper promises are irredeemable. If we persist in demanding that government solve our fuel shortage, the likelihood that we can keep warm by burning our ration coupons is a chilling prospect. Furthermore, the energy crisis is merely one of an endless list of shortages of goods and services that must inevitably grow out of government manipulation of money and closure of the market. Since government is noncreative and nonproductive, it can only “solve” one shortage by causing one or more others; it can only give to one person or group what it first takes from others; it can only intervene in international disputes in favor of one of the claimants by antagonizing the others; it can dispense as foreign aid only what it withdraws from the domestic market; it can only close the market to foreign suppliers by simultaneously closing it in like amount to domestic consumers.

If the government is to maintain a fair field for all competitors — producers as well as consumers —it must refrain from granting privileges to any of them or playing favorites in any way. And if there is any hint of a shortage or surplus, the best the government can do is to get out of the way, stop its meddling, and leave the matter to willing buyers and sellers in the open market. If the government will let us, and if we will be self-responsible, there is no reason at all why anyone ever again would have to chop his own wood except for fun and recreation.  

  • Paul L. Poirot was a long-time member of the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education and editor of its journal, The Freeman, from 1956 to 1987.