Inevitably, President Bush’s itemization of means by which to diminish fuel consumption led to derision. The single most common rhetorical device in all argumentation is the invocation of Alternative Uses. I became starkly conscious of this thought-burr in vivid circumstances. I was with James Dickey in Florida. We were guests of the United States government, invited to ogle the capsule with astronauts headed for the moon.
It was very cold and still dark when the moon-bound streak of fire shot up from the launch pad. Dickey the poet was frozen in awe and admiration. At breakfast he threatened to break the neck of a television commentator whom he heard saying into the mike that the cost of this lunar extravagance was the equivalent of 126,000 units of low-cost housing. Dickey was trembling with furious indignation that such vulgar measurements were being used to discredit the beauty and awesomeness of the enterprise we had just seen coming up from its womb on a Florida beach.
I have ever after been aware of the device. It is of course universally used. And not alone by critics of great government enterprises, though we can see the Pharaoh wincing every time he is reminded of alternative uses of the manpower required to construct his new pyramid. At workaday levels, we are confronted every day with alternative uses of our resources, and there can’t be any reasonable objection to the family’s being asked to weigh a new car against a vacation in Europe. When it galls is when there is tendentious play going on. When the broadcaster was pointing out how many housing units might have been built in place of sending astronauts to the moon, he was engaging in moral criticism. The final polarization of the argument ends up, Make Love Not War.
When President Bush said we should consider driving less in order to save fuel it was a matter of nanoseconds before we would be told how much fuel is burned by Air Force One (6,000 gallons per hour). What is invited is relativist criticism of Air Force One’s energy costs.
That line of argument has to be watched because it is capable of reductionist abuse. It is not recommended that the president of the United States should be deterred in the use of his airplane by weighing the cost of the fuel he is prospectively using. His use of his plane has nothing–nothing–to do with whether the purpose for which he used the plane was “justified.” Justifications of presidential expenses aren’t relevant. Whether the gas-using public in the United States should endeavor to reduce time on the road is not something that should be decided by reflecting on how often the president uses his 747. There has never been a monument constructed which could have survived the criticism that there were human priorities being ignored. It is neither feasible nor desirable to put off the construction of the Lincoln Memorial until it is established that there is no one in America who is hungry. Last night, a mere 2,200 people sat listening to 100 choristers, 100 instrumentalists, four soloists, and a conductor, the whole lot of them flown in from London to perform Verdi’s Requiem–90 minutes of music. How justify that?
There is only one rational way to reduce the consumption of fuel, and that is to raise the price of it. The president did not linger on this point, perhaps because the high price of gas is substantially owing to the taxes on its use by government, state and federal. It is only by price that individual priorities can be ordered. Gasoline, if it is costly enough to deter some uses, is at that point properly rationed. Never price controls, which misallocate costs and muscle into the workings of a market system.
The president would have been better off stressing this, namely that the exploration for oil, its refining and distribution, are aspects of the human disposition to consume it. Turning off the air conditioner might be a trivial sacrifice for Alice, but a true stress for Dorothy. They express their element of sacrifice by turning it off at different hours, variably diminishing its consumption.
The states have a direct interest in the consumption of fuel because they tax it. But the demand for most uses of fuel is what the economists designate as “flexible.” Accordingly, pressures differ. Detroit has a new set of automobiles coming out which reflect the high cost of gasoline. But one does not have to reflect on world hunger when switching on the ignition. There are considerations that arise at many levels, economic, political, aesthetic, and humanitarian, each in its own way, as 300 million people respond each in his own way.