All Commentary
Wednesday, August 1, 1973

The Energy Crisis

Mr. anderson recently joined the staff of The Foundation for Economic Education as Executive Secretary and Director of Seminars, following several years of college teaching of economics and business management.

The doomsday cultists of the mature economy seem to be at it again. These omnipresent talisman of doom, so eager to have us return to a reindustrialize society of agrarian primitivism, have found new fodder for their propaganda campaign.

The incentive for their most recent burst of gloom has been the scare value of the current “energy crisis.” Responding to publicized shortages in the energy field, certain ecologists insist we are exploiting our resources so rapidly that shortly there will be nothing remaining. Future generations, we are told, will surely perish unless something is done.

Such pessimism has been fueled by the confusion surrounding the rather unorthodox behavior of firms which are admonishing customers for excessive use of their services. Instead of seeking new customers to consume more of their services, there now is a concerted effort toward encouraging non-consumption.

This is, to say the least, a radical departure from traditional marketing practices. Yet, witness the electric utility company urging customers to “turn off the lights,” and the natural gas company refusing to service new customers and reminding old ones to “turn down the thermostats.” More recently the petroleum companies, acting under orders from the Federal Oil Policy Committee, have adopted “voluntary allocation plans,” resulting in limiting customer purchases of gasoline and early closings of retail gasoline stations.

Further complicating the crisis are those ecologists, who, seeing a growing problem of pollution, hamper and harass all efforts to expand supplies of energy, and plead for restrictions on the use of existing energy resources.

Indeed it would seem that the enemy is the consumer, whose excessive wants have finally exceeded all normal limits and have threatened to deplete a precious national inheritance. Unless these consumers are somehow convinced to temper their consumption, there is the danger that such shortages will occur as to spell final disaster for the lot of us.

Volunteer — or Else!

Numerous remedies are being advanced as popular solutions to this crisis. The efforts by utility and petroleum companies to restrict sales voluntarily is lauded as being in “the public interest,” for it is placing civic duty above mere profit making. Through” educating” the consumer to consume less, it is believed, the demand for energy resources can be lessened.

Should such efforts fail, the ultimate remedy suggested is direct government regulation of consumption by bureaucratic rationing. Such an alternative is not idle theorizing. The Federal Government has made it clear that if “voluntary” methods fail, it intends to move in. Confronted with a picture of individuals glutting themselves on scarce economic resources and ravaging the earth of all its riches, there appears to be no alternative but to turn to collective, forceful action, complete with penalties for transgressions. The state at this point is seen as the only means available to force an adjustment to the reality of scarcity rather than endless abundance.

Once again we see the threat of government intervention in order to remedy the ill effects of an earlier government interference. The so called “energy crisis” is a direct consequence of earlier government intrusions into the free market pricing process. To expect any good to come from further government intervention at this point is to believe that a person just run down by a truck would get relief if the truck backed over him again.

Market economics has always recognized the problem of scarcity. Indeed, it is the sole basis for the science of economics. An individual’s capacity to want is insatiable, but possessing only a limited ability to fulfill his wants, the individual is never able to satisfy all of them. Clearly, choices must be made and resources allocated toward the accomplishment of those chosen ends. The process by which this is done is the concern of economics.

While a market system of economic organization cannot eliminate the problem of scarcity, it has demonstrated its superiority over all other systems of economic organization in reducing the degree of relative scarcity. The emergence of a social division of labor and concomitant price system has resulted in attaining the highest degree of efficiency in allocating resources toward the satisfaction of human wants.

Within the framework of a market structured society the allocation of economic goods is accomplished through prices established by the actions of buyers and sellers. This interaction between supply and demand is never static, and thus there is a continually changing price structure. As greater quantities are demanded or supplies dwindle, prices tend to rise; conversely, prices tend to fall when lesser quantities are demanded or when supplies increase. Free market prices are constantly adjusting in order to bring toward equilibrium these opposing forces of supply and demand.

It is these free market prices that direct the actions of buyers and sellers. As long as buyers and sellers are free to act, as long as the price mechanism is uninhibited, economic goods will be allocated in a fashion that will always assure their availability to anyone wishing to enter the market. Supply will always tend toward equilibrium with demand.

Serving Willing Buyers

This phenomenon of an equilibrium price, of course, has not eliminated the problem of scarcity. Instead, it can only assure that scarce goods will always be available to willing buyers. Prices serve as a means for allocating these scarce resources to those buyers who value them more highly than do others. The justice of the free market lies in the fact that the most efficient sellers will prevail in supplying scarce resources to the buyers who most urgently seek these resources over all other potential buyers. Such a system is in a continual state of flux as new buyers and new sellers supplant one another and cause prices to correspondingly rise and fall.

The present “energy crisis” stems not from a problem of economic scarcity, but instead from non-market forces which are interfering with free market prices, and thus causing shortages to develop. The problem of economic scarcity is present in nearly every situation of our lives. We are not in an “energy crisis” now because energy is scarce, but rather because there is a “shortage” of it. Shortages are inconceivable in a free market structure; but they do occur whenever free market methods are abandoned.

The competitive actions of buyers and sellers in a free market system precludes any threat of shortages. The very essence of price allocation negates the development of shortages. A greater relative scarcity of a good in a free market situation will inevitably lead to higher prices as buyers bid against one another for the shrinking supply. For shortages to occur, some market force must be introduced to create the disequilibrium.

The “energy crisis” is an example of such interference. Of course energy resources are scarce; that is conceded. They always have been, and they always will be scarce. But the current shortages in the market have led many people to believe that we have encountered something worse than scarcity; all of a sudden there is a specter of a well running dry.

Misunderstanding the Causes

Popular remedies being suggested are further confused by a misunderstanding of the causes of the problem. Certain forces which have contributed to an increase in the relative scarcity of energy, and other forces which have contributed to an increased demand for energy, are now being blamed for causing the shortages of energy resources. Such is not the case, for under conditions of an unhampered market these forces would be reflected in a changing price structure. Only direct interference with free price movements can cause the shortages.

A leading example of a force not responsible for causing the energy shortage, but certainly a factor affecting its supply and demand, is radical ecology.’ Ecology is frequently blamed as the primary cause of the “energy crisis.” As proponents for the preservation of natural resources, the ecologists have in many instances been successful in curtailing supplies of energy resources by hampering the construction of new oil refineries, electric generating plants, drilling operations, and pipe lines. Their efforts at preserving resources in their natural state, by harassment of utilities and petroleum companies, have undoubtedly restricted present supplies. Ironically, their success in forcing automobile manufacturers to equip engines with emission control devices has greatly increased the demand for gasoline. (Presently these devices consume an additional three million gallons of gasoline daily.)

While a paradox can readily be seen between their efforts at preservation on the one hand, and the wasteful results of their efforts regarding pollution on the other hand, the fact remains that their actions cannot be held accountable for the current energy shortage. It is certainly valid to observe that to the degree they have curtailed supplies and have increased the consumption of energy, they have been a factor in causing the prices of energy resources to rise. But ecologists can no more hamper price movements than can any other private individuals.

In the same context, forces such as import quotas, declining exploration, production controls on producing wells, tax depletion allowances, agreements between refineries and dealers, and even possible secret cartels have been advanced as the causes of our present crisis. Valid charges or not, any or all of these factors can affect only the quantities of energy resources supplied, and thus the ultimate market price. None of them, any more than the ecologist, can cause market disequilibrium in the form of shortages.

Shortages from Price Fixing

Shortages are a result of price fixing by government interference in the market place. Specifically, the government, through both direct and indirect methods, has been successful in preventing the prices for energy resources to rise.

The developing energy shortage has been growing for a long period of time in the utility industries. The reason is obvious when we realize that direct price regulation by government has existed far longer in this area of our energy resources than within the petroleum industry.

State public utility commissions, the Federal Power Commission, and other government regulatory commissions have direct authority over rates charged for energy by electric power and natural gas companies. Unfortunately, these commissions mistakenly assumed low rates to be in the best interests of consumers of energy resources. Under the misguided notion that low prices for energy —rather than equilibrium prices —benefited the consumer, little attention was given to the developing disequilibrium between energy supplies and energy demanded.

For many years the disequilibrium has been absorbed in the capital structures of utility companies. This consumption of accumulated capital, with its ensuing financial weakening of the utility companies, gradually affected their capacity and willingness to attract capital for expansion of their energy resources. Production of energy became marginal, if not entirely uneconomic.

At the same time, demand for energy at the low rates continued to expand until the inevitable disequilibrium developed. Energy was being supplied in shorter quantities than were being demanded. Since additional quantities could not be supplied without incurring losses (at the low rates imposed on utility companies by the government commissions), these companies had no recourse but to deny service and to urge less use by their customers.

The failure of the utility industry to meet the full market demand for energy requirements had a “spillover” effect on the petroleum industry. Customers, fearful that electrical power and natural gas supplies would be unavailable to them, sought greater quantities of fuel oil from the petroleum industry to meet their energy requirements.

Two Blows at Once

Unfortunately, this increased demand upon the petroleum industry occurred at a time when price controls on their industry had just been introduced. While the method of price regulation has been less direct than that experienced in the utility industry, the problems created are similar.

After many years of a government imposed inflation of our money supply and resulting higher and higher prices, a government program of price controls was inevitably adopted. Abandoning all economic reasoning, the government established a “freeze” on prices of most goods and services, including petroleum products. Throughout the various “phases” of the price control program, petroleum prices have not been able to reflect the changing forces of supply and demand affecting them. Few industries failed to feel the pressures of the government price freeze; but the petroleum industry, along with other capital-intensive industries, felt the heaviest pressure. Inflation always inflicts the severest damage on industries with a heavy capital investment in their productive processes.

The capacity of such capital-intensive industries to calculate their economic costs is seriously hampered by inflation. Furthermore, the erosion of capital resources by inflation discourages future productive efforts by such industries. Accurate economic calculation becomes nearly impossible.

Thus, a government imposed price freeze on the heels of a government engineered inflation made a petroleum shortage inevitable. A combination of factors pressuring for an upward movement of prices only worsened the disequilibrium: the peculiarly sensitive financial position of the industry to inflationary pressures; ecological forces affecting their capacity to increase supplies while at the same time increasing the consumption of the product; and heavier consumption on account of a diversion of demand from the natural gas and electric power industries.

Obviously, had petroleum prices been completely free to respond to these changing facts and conditions there would be no threat of shortages. However, the petroleum industry like the utility industry, having lost its entrepreneurial freedom to resolve the disequilibrium through the price mechanism, found itself pleading with its customers to “not buy.”

The “Solution” Is the Problem

The real cause for concern at this point is not the “energy crisis” so much as it is the solution the government will undertake to “solve” the problem of the shortages. Rather than admit the failure of government price interference and allow the free market to once again achieve equilibrium between supply and demand, the government more likely will propose the adoption of rationing.

The allure of rationing seems to be based on an egalitarian ideal which rejects the price system as a discriminatory relic of economic inequality, and thus not suitable as a means for the just allocation of resources. Regrettably, this egalitarian doctrine attracts many supporters and is one of the leading threats to the survival of individual liberty.

The concept of rationing is predicated on an archaic and totally refuted objective theory of value, yet its philosophical appeal has had an overwhelming influence in our political affairs. The notion that an equal distribution of goods to individuals will provide equal utility is a complete denial of modern theory of subjective value; but government rationing still insists on the allocation of resources in this fashion.

If selective rationing of energy resources should materialize, the consequences are quite predictable. The decline of profit margins will result in a capital shift away from such industries, and this will lead to additional shrinkage of supplies. Since capital always moves away from low profit industries and into higher profit industries, future production of energy resources must decline. The low prices imposed by government edict will ultimately be meaningless as, finally, no supplies will be produced at all by private companies.

The historical response to this development has always been the same. Whenever governments have finally succeeded in making a productive service completely uneconomic for private enterprise, they assume the function for themselves and nationalize the industry. (This “final solution,” it might be pointed out, not only fails to solve the problem of scarcity but tends rather to intensify it.)

Look to the Market

The appropriate alternative to our energy crisis is to return to free market principles. The consequences will not be pleasant, for the most probable result will be higher prices for energy resources than exist today.

Recent price movements in those few goods that have not been covered by the freeze give us a good contrast to the situation with respect to the controlled goods. For example, we have seen as much as a fourfold increase in the prices of some agricultural products in the past year because of inflation and other changes in the supply and demand picture. While such price rises have been a cause of much consternation to consumers, they have not resulted in shortages and subsequent rationing.

Should supplies of these agricultural products now increase (as well they might, because of their profitability), or if demand declines (because of consumer resistance to the high prices), then prices will again fall in a reflection of market actions of buyers and sellers.

While the government planners recognized the presence of these market forces in agricultural products and exempted them from direct controls, they failed to recognize that these same forces are at play with all economic goods and services. Instead, believing that prices of manufactured goods are somehow “administered” and immune from the economic laws of supply and demand, the government imposed the price “freeze” upon them.

As must always happen with an abandonment of economic reality, the edicts of government are falling victim to inexorable economic law. The ever changing forces of supply and demand, continuing an upward pressure on the prices of energy resources, are making the “frozen prices” a relic of economic history. The growing disequilibrium between the government manipulated prices and the actual forces of supply and demand precipitates the inevitable shortage. If this “energy crisis” is to be resolved, there is only one alternative. We must return the allocation of scarce resources to the market. Freedom in the market place, so that the economic structuring of society is in the hands of individuals acting as their own free agents, is the only “final solution.” Under such a system, the crisis of shortages is unknown. 

  • Robert G. Anderson taught economics and business management at Grove City College, Pennsylvania, and served as Executive Secretary of the Foundation for Economic Education in the 1970s.