Max Boot: Filling tanks, funding dictators

Some sane analysis of the meaning of higher oil prices by Max Boot:

FREE-MARKET purists are getting a lot of mileage out of scoffing at all the hysteria about rising oil prices. From a strictly economic point of view, they’ve got a point. Even with crude selling at more than $71 a barrel and gasoline at about $3 a gallon, the U.S. economy continues to expand. It grew at a healthy annualized rate of 4.8% in the first quarter, and there has been no sign of a slowdown since. Oil is a much smaller part of the economy than it was during the oil shocks of the 1970s, and retail prices are still half of what the more heavily taxed Europeans pay.

Eventually, if oil prices keep rising, it may put a damper on the economy, but the odds are, if history is a guide, that prices will soon plunge as demand decreases (people drive less) and supply increases (oil companies dig more wells). Libertarians fret that political meddling will only interfere with the beneficent work of the invisible hand.

If oil were a commodity like any other, the free-marketers would be right. But it’s not. Most oil reserves are controlled by governments, many of which conspire through the OPEC cartel to manipulate the market. These governments aren’t the kind that any sane person would want to see in control of such a vital asset. Their power can only be countered by action from our own government.

Of the top 14 oil exporters, only one is a well-established liberal democracy — Norway. Two others have recently made a transition to democracy — Mexico and Nigeria. Iraq is trying to follow in their footsteps. That’s it. Every other major oil exporter is a dictatorship — and the run-up in oil prices has been a tremendous boon to them.

My associate at the Council on Foreign Relations, Ian Cornwall, calculates that if oil averages $71 a barrel this year, 10 autocracies stand to make about $500 billion more than in 2003, when oil was at $27. This windfall helps to squelch liberal forces and entrench noxious dictators in such oil producers as Russia (which stands to make $115 billion more this year than in 2003) and Venezuela ($36 billion). Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez can buy off their publics with generous subsidies and ignore Western pressure while sabotaging democratic developments from Central America to Central Asia.