This article is from The Objective Standard, Vol. 3, No. 4.
“We’ve got to go after the oil companies,” says President-elect Barack Obama in response to high oil and gasoline prices. “We’ve got to go after [their] windfall profits.”1 Explaining the purpose of recently proposed energy legislation, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says: “We are forcing oil companies to change their ways. We will hold them accountable for unconscionable price-gouging and force them to invest in renewable energy or pay a price for refusing to do so.”2 Calling for government seizure of private power plants, California Senate Leader John Burton insists: “We have to do something. These people have got us by the throat. They’re making more money than God, and we’ve got to fight back—not with words, but with actions.”3
This attitude toward energy producers, which is practically unanimous among American politicians today, is wreaking havoc not only on the lives and rights of these producers, but on the lives and rights of Americans in general. It leads to laws and regulations that prohibit producers and consumers from acting on their rational judgment with respect to energy. It causes energy shortages, brownouts, and blackouts that thwart everyone’s ability to be productive and enjoy life. And it results in higher prices not only for energy, but for every good and service that depends on energy—which means every good and service in the marketplace, from food to transportation to medical care to sporting events to education to housing.
Energy producers, like all rational businessmen, are in business to make money. Profits are what motivate them to exert the requisite brain power, to engage in the necessary research, and to invest the massive amounts of money required to produce and deliver the energy we need to light, heat, and cool our homes, and to power the factories, workplaces, and tools required to produce the goods on which our lives depend. Their profit motive is to our benefit.
Moreover, energy producers, like all human beings, have a moral right to act according to their own judgment so long as they do not violate the rights of others. They have a moral right to use and dispose of the product of their effort as they see fit. They have a moral right to contract with customers by mutual consent to mutual benefit. In other words, they have a moral right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. And it is only by respecting these rights that we can expect energy producers to produce energy.
So let us examine the assault on these producers, count the ways in which this assault is both impractical and immoral, and specify what must be done to rectify this injustice. . . .