Hell, No, We Won't Go (to the Energy War)

It's another immoral war, but where are all the freedom fighters this time?


President Carter has urged us to join him on the battlefield of energy, and America's influential citizens have uniformly volunteered to serve. As for the rest of us, we will be drafted.

I, however, intend to resist the energy draft—for the same reasons I resisted the Vietnam draft. As it is currently being fought, the energy war is a fundamentally immoral crusade.

Disregard the fact that the president's policies will fail in their practical goal of adjusting us to a world of scarcer energy. Altogether too much ink has already been spilled over the problem of effective policy, while the ethical dimensions of the energy war remain unexplored.

Asked about the unenforceability of the thermostat rules, a Department of Energy attorney stated to a Wall Street Journal interviewer that the standards would work because civic-minded individuals would report violators, and businessmen losing sales to competitors who offered comfortable environments would do likewise. We have entered an appalling world. If you are losing business to a competitor, why not report him and let the feds give him some trouble? (His actual thermostat setting is irrelevant.) If you don't like your neighbor, you can turn him in for energy abuse, using a toll-free hotline. Physical comfort has just achieved the same legal status as marijuana.

And no one complains. Were the federal government to prohibit the reading of certain materials, the best people would be up in arms, and justifiably so. Free citizens are presumed competent to choose their own reading matter. But the courts have held that they are incompetent to choose the fuel consumption of their cars and appliances. The traveling salesman who needs a large trunk and the young mechanic who likes power and style have become nonpersons. People always think they have the best of reasons for frustrating others' choices. Some would censor the professor's books, and the professor would censor others' engine displacement. As far as consequences go, their desires are indistinguishable. Each degrades the quality of the other's life.

The connection with free expression is not a fanciful one. Harvard's energy expert Daniel Yergin, writing in a recent issue of Fortune, lauded the French government's conservation program, whereby advertisers who encourage excessive energy use are subject to censorship and prosecution. Harvard grew to its present stature as a consequence of its dedication to free expression, regardless of cost. Now a member of its faculty finds the regulation of such messages desirable because it will help the balance of payments.

The House of Representatives recently voted down legislation that would have required everyone to give up using his auto for one day a week. Something like it will come, sooner or later. Odd-even rules and weekend driving restrictions are the modern analog of Sunday closing laws. Civil libertarians aggressively fought these laws, which were supported by members of religious groups who claimed that the soul is too important to be left to the discretion of its owner. Today, we have people who make the same argument about carburetors.

Why is there no moral outrage against the confounding of personal choice by the energy warriors? The reason is simple: The people who found Jim Crow and General Hershey repulsive are on the side of the government this time. Their only quarrels with the president are about how Draconian the thermostat rules should be and how much wealth should be expropriated from the residents of Texas and Louisiana.

Like Vietnam, the energy war has become an exercise in presidential face-saving. Filling the role of Ho Chi Minh are the Arab and the oil company. A company produces magazine advertising with tasteless caricatures of Arabs, and no one complains. The president has kinder words for most dictators than he has for oil producers. Concerned dissenters are accused of prolonging the war. As in Vietnam, science will help us. Ineffectual but costly exotic technologies are the smart bombs and McNamara barricades of the energy war.

It is not war, but politics-as-usual. A squeaky wheel cries for grease, and the president delivers it. A fuel allocation here, a windfall tax there, a grant to the inventor of a "soft" energy source somewhere else. (A soft source is anything not currently sold by Exxon.)

The politics are apparent in a look at the seal of the US Department of Energy. Its design was a long time coming, because of factionalism by the partisans of different energy sources. The final compromise, a triumph of politics over art, contains pictures of a windmill, an oil well, the sun, an atom, a lightning bolt, and two unidentifiable pieces of machinery. They should all have been replaced by a giant icicle.

The president is already promising voters in states with early primaries that he will see to it that they have fuel oil this winter. The law now gives him the power to buy votes in this manner, at the expense of citizens in other areas. A private oil monopolist would never discriminate so blatantly among regions, but because a political oil monopolist gets paid in votes, he has such incentives.

The voices of the concerned are unified in urging that the president be given still more power. Like Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor, he will offer us security in exchange for our freedom. The likely outcome of the energy war is that we will have neither.

So I use energy without feeling any guilt. I prefer to have my home warmer, at the expense of some purchases for my book collection. It is a decision that I am perfectly competent to make. The latter-day busybodies who are leading the troops in this war wish it were otherwise, and soon they will probably have the law on their side. As these laws proliferate, I intend to resist them and their enforcers. Passed for the basest of political reasons, they do nothing to solve the practical problems of energy. They are the Blue Laws of the '80s.

Robert J. Michaels teaches economics at California State College at Fullerton. This article appeared in a slightly different version in the Los Angeles Times and is published here by permission of Mr. Michaels and the Times.