Viewpoint: Coupon Caper

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The poor things who run the Department of Energy face a terrible dilemma. Nine years ago, at the height of the First Great Energy Shortage, the federal bureaucrats rubbed their hands in glee and got set for that favorite of all statists when faced with any shortage—rationing. In the name of a spurious "fairness," rationing imposes a totalitarian scheme of allocation upon the citizenry, usually compelling equal shares of the product but tempering that equality with special advantages for farmers, war workers, government bureaucrats, and other darlings of statism.

So the federal government cranked up its machinery, spent over $10 million, and printed 4.8 billion gasoline rationing coupons—and waited. Meanwhile, the bureaucracy happily debated what kind of rationing would be imposed.

During the mid-1970s, the orthodox held out for the type that old-timers knew and loved during World War II: everyone was issued a coupon for a fixed amount of gasoline per week—munificent A-coupons for government bureaucrats and war workers, C-coupons for the average sucker, etc. Not only did such rationing, along with price controls, create severe and unnecessary shortages, but scandals abounded as sharpies and those in the know were able to wangle A-coupons while the rest of the citizenry suffered. Newspapers delighted in printing photos of racetrack parking lots filled with cars sporting the exclusive A-coupon.

The more-progressive bureaucrats of the '70s, however, argued that a bit more freedom should go into the next orgy of gasoline rationing. Everyone would still be issued coupons, each with a fixed quota of weekly gasoline attached. But whereas the World War II–style coupons were strictly nonnegotiable, these new coupons would be negotiable and saleable in a legal "white market." If the coupon entitled you to, say, 20 gallons a week, you could buy one or more coupons from fellow citizens at whatever price would be set by the interplay of supply and demand.

And so a little bit of freedom was to be permitted within the matrix of a rotten situation. The scheme must have been dreamed up by some economist. Me, I prefer the old-style black market. It is freer and basically more honest, if (alas) illegal.

After the billions of coupons were printed up, well-founded rumors hit the government that the alleged Mafia or its moral equivalents—people who had proven their mettle during World War II by printing and selling undetectable counterfeit coupons—were getting ready to greet the new 1970s-style coupons. Horrors! But, as the New York Times recently put it in its inimitable serioso style, there were "reports some years ago that potential counterfeiters of coupons had been discovered with engraving plates."

But shucks, the opportunity to test these alternative scenarios never came to pass. The promising Energy Shortages of 1974 and 1979 both disappeared rapidly as soon as price and allocation controls were lifted, and for the last two years everyone has shifted quickly from complaints about the imminent disappearance of energy to howls about an energy "glut."

And what about those 4.8 billion stillborn coupons? Well, they are now a-molderin' in quonset huts at an Army depot in Pueblo, Colorado, all 2,000 tons of them. The problem is that even if another Energy Shortage were engineered on some glorious day in the future and the bureaucracy had the will to ration, these coupons could no longer be used. The paper has deteriorated, the metal straps binding the coupons have broken down, and several million coupons have either disappeared or are simply unaccounted for. Thousands of private citizens around the country may be sitting on hoards of lost or stolen coupons, waiting for gasoline rationing to pounce.

So why doesn't the Energy Department just dump the coupons somewhere and forget them? Out of the question, for the US Government unaccountably goofed. It seems that the coupons all bear a picture of George Washington that is almost identical to the sacred portrait on the $1 bill. Hence, bill-changing machines will respond to the coupons, and circulation of them would be a heck of a mess. Besides, there are all those Mafiosi out there lying in wait with their illegal engraving plates at the ready. The useless coupons must therefore be kept under constant tight security.

Ordinarily, the government would burn the pesky coupons, as the Federal Reserve does with old money. But, as one official pointed out, "the big problem is transportation." It would take 100 trucks to transport the billions of coupons to the burning ground, and only four to six trucks a day can be moved under the requisite tight security. Recycling seems to be out for some reason. According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Deputy Assistant Energy Secretary Ronald L. Winkler, the person now in charge of the mess, is distraught. "I just want to get rid of the damn, darn things," he said.

Well, well. Perhaps suggestions are in order. What in the world can the government do with the darn things? Somehow, obscene suggestions come readily to mind. If these are considered unseemly, maybe a huge bonfire could be made of them and the quonset huts.

If any REASON readers have some bright ideas on just how the Department of Energy can dispose of the 4.8 billion unwanted rationing coupons, I'm sure Messrs. Winkler and Sacks would be delighted to receive the advice.

Murray Rothbard is a professor of economics at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute of New York and the author of numerous articles and books on economics, history, and the libertarian movement.

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