Gouging is good. What about conserving?

The president is calling for consumers to conserve gas. Why should they?

Published September 27, 2005 5:43PM (EDT)

Salon editorial fellow Aaron Kinney ponders recent calls for U.S. energy consumers to conserve gas.

We're getting mixed messages when it comes to oil supplies and prices this hurricane season. The Wall Street Journal ("In Praise of 'Gouging,'" Sept. 7) and ABC News' John Stossel have opined that price gouging is a good thing because it prevents gas suppliers from running out of their product, ensuring that there's enough to go around for everybody. Greed, in other words, is good. By pursuing their own interests, individuals wind up benefiting society.

Meanwhile, President Bush on Monday joined the chorus of people calling on American consumers to conserve gas by avoiding unnecessary trips.

"We can all pitch in by using -- by being better conservers of energy. I mean, people just need to recognize that the storms have caused disruption and that if they're able to maybe not drive when they -- on a trip that's not essential, that would helpful."

It was a weakly phrased plea, but a plea nonetheless. The president's sentiments echoed those of Red Cavaney, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, the trade association for U.S. oil and gas companies. Cavaney released a statement last Thursday urging conservation:

"My message today is that shutdowns of industry facilities could impact the flow of gasoline and other fuels, and we ask for your help. At times like this, actions by individual consumers can make a big difference for the good."

"Plan your trips to conserve fuel. Do not to fill up your gas tank unless needed. Lower your top speed by 10 mph. Avoid jack-rabbit starts. Minimize use of your car's air conditioning  Look to mass transit when available. And conserve energy in your home."

So, in essence, Cavaney wants consumers to make their decisions not for their own benefit but for the greater good of society. But why shouldn't consumers just do whatever they feel like? According to the logic espoused by Stossel and the Wall Street Journal, energy consumers, as market actors, should burn as much fuel as they want to.

We're not suggesting that Bush and Cavaney are being hypocritical. Neither of them has said that price gouging is a good thing. But we would like to see some consistency from right-wing pundits. Are they going to come out in opposition to Bush's and Cavaney's calls for conservation? Or are only businesses, not consumers, allowed to act without regard for the interests of others?

By Aaron Kinney

Aaron Kinney is a writer in San Francisco. He has a blog.

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