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Matching ethics and policy: Free markets, subsidies and fuel

There is probably a reason that ethicists rarely sit at the public policy table with respect to transportation fuel. Let’s think about it for a few minutes in the context of a diverse group of econo-ethicists. Let’s match the ethics of presently monopolistic gasoline markets, the huge oil subsidies granted to oil companies and, yes (for environmental folks), the gift of HOV lanes and tax subsidies for those with the “right” cars, with:

  • John Rawls’ ethical guideline that we should respond to the least among us as we would want to be responded to ourselves,
  • Jeremy Bentham’s ground rule that we should seek the greatest good for the greatest number),
  • Karl Hayek’s admonition that the least government is, generally, the best government,
  • Michael Douglas’ statement in “Wall Street” that “greed is good.”

Currently, oil company policy and behavior with respect to gas stations they own, franchise or influence is very restrictive. Even when they allow alternative fuels to be sold in gas stations, companies play the role of Cinderella’s ugly stepmother. Alternative fuel pumps, often, are placed apart from the gas pumps, sometimes out of sight. If they were human, the alternative fuel pumps, legitimately, would have a discrimination case, need psychiatrists and would probably cry a lot because of loneliness. Lacking choices, consumers must pay an extra tariff for gasoline. Prices for gas reflecting little or no competition are arbitrarily high.

Congress supports the oil monopoly at the pump. It has failed to allow methanol as a transportation fuel and has not passed open fuels legislation.

Certainly, an ethical judgment of the current fuel market and those who establish its limited boundaries should be easy to make. You would get an “A” from both Rawls and Bentham as well as from Hayek if you said, “It is rough on the poor who pay upwards of 15-17% of their income for gasoline and it forces extra costs for all of us at the pump.” Finally, it illustrates Hayek’s warning that too much government restrictions limit freedom. Gosh, who ever thought I would agree with Hayek, even in a limited way? Perhaps, however, Mike Douglas wins this one. Greed has been good for the oil companies.

Douglas also wins big on tax subsidies to oil companies. Yet, despite diverse ethical principles, everyone scores well on the granting of tax subsidies to the oil industry. Both liberal and conservative groups, as well as the Congressional Research Service (CRS) agree that many of the tax subsidies are not needed to secure production and distribution. Why, then, does the industry benefit from such beneficence? History granted them favored status; politics and money give them influence at budget-making time.

I was in favor of (and probably deep down still tilt toward) HOV lanes. But, I do have some real doubts about tax subsidies, particularly subsidies not tied to income.

I am worried about the ethics of both. Most of the benefits of HOV lanes and tax subsidies to secure buyers of cars that use them go to relatively affluent income folks. Both are paid for by general taxpayers, including income-deprived tax payers.

Further, most low and moderate-income households face severe budget constraints if they try to buy new so called clean vehicles that are now allowed in the HOV lanes and secure tax benefits. No preference is granted to other alternative fuels like ethanol, and the federal government does not readily allow the relatively inexpensive conversion of existing cars to alternative fuels — methanol, ethanol. States generally do not permit the small number of converted cars in HOV lanes. Lastly, in terms of debits, HOV lanes do increase congestion, when they are not utilized to the fullest, increasing driving costs for every one of us who are not so lucky to own the “right” vehicles.

So HOV lanes and tax subsidies for favored cars do raise ethical questions. They don’t treat the least among us fairly, they are not good yet for the greatest number of us, and they reflect government behavior that reflects a bit of shooting from the hip before tough analysis concerning efficiency, and effectiveness. Let me see, Rawls, Bentham and Hayek would at least be sensitive to the involved ethical issues.

Alright, are you happy, indifferent or sad that ethicists are not at the policy table? Let me know.

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