Price Controls and Other Nixonian Evils

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There are many ways to reduce the cost of gas, consistent with liberty and the workings of the market. The federal and state governments could slash away all the gasoline taxes. The government could stop outbidding the private sector for oil, selling it to Iraqis at a staggering loss, taking oil off the market by devastating oil fields and consuming so much in its war. It could denationalize some of the land with good drilling potential, and make any number of moves toward letting a totally privatized, deregulated free market handle energy.

What do the conservatives propose to do? Many right-wing radio talkers and pundits are calling for the heads of "price-gougers," celebrating as the socialist state of Hawaii enacts price caps, and beckoning Bush and state executives to use emergency powers and bring us relief and recovery at the pump. Certainly not all conservatives are bleating such price-control-mongering nonsense, but enough of the ones with a large audience of loyal followers are for us to worry. What Bush will do is up in the air, but he has caved in on energy price controls in the past, and his recent denunciation of "gouging" is troubling.

Of Richard Nixon’s vast repertoire of domestic assaults on liberty and the free market, price controls on oil were among his most evil and destructive. In the midst of economic stagnation surely related to his guns and butter, inflationism, devaluation of the dollar and his closing of the gold window, the Republican called down from on high and decreed that the laws of supply and demand be repealed. The feds were unleashed to regiment prices and wages throughout the land, with no more respect for economic freedom and reality than was displayed by FDR’s National Recovery Administrators. Most of Tricky Dick’s price and wage controls were scrapped within a few years, after the shortages and other chaos they caused became too obvious to ignore, but central planning of oil and natural gas prices continued, failing to solve the problem and even inspiring schemes for rationing, until 1981 when President Reagan, in an act of sensibility anomalous for his administration, expedited the decontrol of oil prices as planned by President Carter. Prices fell dramatically for several years, and the economy boomed accordingly.

Nixon had spoken as though he understood the nonsense and evil of price controls, up until the point he imposed them. For years conservatives have distanced themselves from much of Nixon’s economic policy, which in retrospect appears more collectivist than any Democratic president’s since. That the right is seriously considering government-administered controls as a solution to rising gas prices should help to make a few things perfectly clear.

First, as if we did not know already, conservatives are not reliable friends and defenders of the free market. Many if not most of them neither consider private property and mutual exchange to be fundamental human rights, nor do they understand even some of the simple laws of economics.

Second, as if we did not know already, conservatives believe in the ability of the state to alter reality upon command. They have faith in the power of government coercion as a means of achieving good — even economic health and prosperity. Their complaints about high taxes and the welfare state are not grounded in anything resembling solid philosophical or methodological principle. Indeed, central management of prices is pure economic fascism, far worse in most ways than the typical government waste and boondoggling that seem to elicit the most conservative ire regarding "big government." When conservatives think the state can assist them in something they want, such as lower prices at the pump, the attitude seems to be that it’s time to take off the velvet gloves, crack some skulls and let the heads roll. Socialism will work, after all, if just done right.

Third, today’s strain of big-government conservatism, especially as seen in the Bush White House and its sycophants, has distinct similarities to that prevalent in the Nixon years: along with the denial of crookedness, the secrecy, the tough-on-crime gloating, the stubborn warmongering, the emphasis on culture war rather than fostering a culture of liberty, the invincible faith in the state and presidency, the branding of dissidents as traitors, and the disregard for sound fiscal and monetary policy, we also see the arrogant and ignorant attacks on the free market.

This is a brand of conservatism that has virtually nothing in common with libertarianism, other than some residual spots of rhetorical overlap, which only serve to obscure the true scorecard in the conflict between liberty and power. Most libertarians seem to hate Lyndon Johnson but almost give Nixon a pass in comparison. Some proponents of freedom similarly still have a hard time looking at Bush with the same scorn with which they eyed Clinton. But just as Nixon was as bad domestically as Lyndon Johnson, cutting nothing significant from the Great Society but adding atop of it the EPA, OSHA, federal affirmative action, national drug laws, and piles of graft and federal interventions in every direction; so too has Bush done nothing to ameliorate the situation that Clinton left behind, instead complementing it with more new and expanded government programs and higher rates of federal spending increases than what America has seen in decades.

Both Bush and Nixon represent anti-liberal regimes of astronomical government expansion, murderous wartime deception, contempt for basic civil liberty and a species of economic collectivism that attacks the core of the market economy at least as violently as anything we could expect from a Clinton or Carter. Conservatives tend to have soft spots for both Republican presidents, which seem to correspond more with a desire to gainsay the left-liberal revulsion to these men than with any sort of principle concerned with freedom or even internal consistency. The modern resurgence of Nixonian evil on the right is troubling, to say the least, as it implies that the very worst inclinations in American conservative philosophy have won out for the moment.

Let us hope that Bush doesn’t top off his Nixonian legacy with the national socialism of federal price controls. The economy is barely floating along on its inflationary bubbles as it is. Let us also hope, though it’s unlikely, that the ending of Bush’s reign is a happy one for liberty, as it was in the case of Nixon.

Only a Republican like Nixon could visit Communist China, so goes the cliché.

And so perhaps only a Nixonian Republican can bring Communism to America.

Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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