There’s a word for Energy Independence: Poverty

One of the hot topics in this campaign is a call for “energy independence”. All the candidates for president, with the exception of Ron Paul are for it. The vast majority of the candidates for Congress are for it too.

Essentially, the proponents are arguing that if people living in the U.S. bought less oil from people living outside the U.S., there would be much less reason for American soldiers to be sent to go fight in the Middle East, and Middle Easterners would have less money with which to fund attacks on Americans. Additionally, the supporters all seem to believe a largely unspoken mercantilist argument that by not buying oil from foreigners, Americans are better off since wealth stays within the borders of the nation.

The supporters argue that to achieve this, the U.S. government should, through a mixture taxes and subsidies, encourage people to either produce oil domestically, or to develop alternate sources of energy.

Let us examine this idea using a reductio ad absurdum. Imagine we did not simply stop at energy independence for the United States, but rather required each state to be energy independent. Imagine if the Federal Government outlawed the transport of any electricity, any fuel oil and any wood across state lines. What would be the result?

At least they aren't dependent on foreign oil.

At least they aren’t dependent on foreign oil.

Well, California and Alaska would be awash in cheap energy, but what would people in Vermont do? Should they send children out in to the forest every day to collect the days firewood? Should they huddle in their homes through the harsh winters carefully rationing out the year’s chopped wood so that they can survive through to the spring thaw?

Why stop at energy? Why not make people be clothing independent? Surely we need to become food independent as well?

Why stop at states? Why not continue to make people freer by making them independent of each other? Why not make each person responsible for producing their own food, their own clothing, their own energy?

Of course, people living in Alabama would have to give up maple syrup, and we living in New England might have to limit our consumption of table sugar and salt to very special occasions as they would become ultra-rare luxury goods. Once again the poor would be reduced to going bare-foot, and clothing would become precious again.

So called “self-sufficiency” has been proposed many times in various guises; The North Korean juche program, the American unions’ “Buy American” campaign of the 1980’s leap to mind. In every case it leaves the practitioners worse off. Deprived of purchasing goods from the lowest cost producers, people are forced to go with higher cost producers, thereby limiting the purchasing power of their own production. The extra cost results in everyone (except for the lucky guy whom people are forced to do business with) being poorer. Their hours of labor buy them fewer goods and services. It is no accident that countries whose economic policies are intended to foster “economic independence” tend to be very poor.

Even though the politicians are not attempting to outlaw oil imports outright, the subsidies and economic interventions they are proposing are destructive. The ethanol subsidies are destructive to farmland and are raising the price of food. The government grants for energy research divert money out of the financial industry that would otherwise be invested in more profitable uses. The result is that what is produced is not as closely aligned with what people want to consume.

There is nothing wrong with the proponents of energy independence calling for people to voluntary avoid consuming petroleum products. There is nothing wrong with the proponents advocating for research and development of new forms of energy to replace the petroleum industry. But in using violence inherent in government action to force people to follow their commands, they are making their countrymen worse off.

We should not be supporting the politicians who pander to this movement.

I am an anarcho-capitalist living just west of Boston Massachussetts. I am married, have two children, and am trying to start my own computer consulting company.