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Gored, Not Gouged

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Vice President Al Gore has an annoying habit. When he doesn’t like the price of something, he sanctimoniously condemns the particular industry that produces it. He’s lately accused both the oil industry and the pharmaceutical industry of “price gouging,” which after “risky scheme” is becoming his favorite sound-bite phrase.

This is so Al Gore. Sanctimony is his leitmotif. Not only does he know better than the rest of us how things ought to be, he is also eager to use physical force — government —to get his way.

So Mr. Gore thinks the prices of gasoline and prescription drugs are too high. It takes a mighty smart guy to know that. He doesn’t simply mean that he’d like to pay less for those things. If that were the standard, any one of us could say that the price of everything is too high — except the price of our own labor.

No, Mr. Gore means that he knows what the prices ought to be. Since they are not as low as he knows they should be, the manufacturers must be up to no good and therefore deserve harsh (his word) treatment by the government.

It is an exceptional man who is able to divine the just price of things. The common man might think that the just price is the one that emerges on the market as a result of countless buying and nonbuying and selling and nonselling decisions of free vendors and consumers. But Al Gore is not a common man. He is something wondrous, a veritable übermensch.. (In the spirit of bipartisanship, I point out that George W. Bush favors an investigation of the oil companies and congressional Republicans propose a tax-financed prescription drug program for the elderly.)

We commoners might venture to point out some problems with Mr. Gore’s position. But we do so at the great risk of revealing that we are not in his league.

For starters, even if you think the prices of gas and drugs are too high, at least the oil and pharmaceutical companies are making those vital products available. They don’t have to do that, you know. We have not reached the point (yet) where the government can conscript people to refine oil and develop drugs. Think of the mess we’d be in if the talented people responsible for those industries called it quits. How much gasoline could Al Gore produce? (He doesn’t manage rental properties very well.) How many life-saving drugs could he invent? (Inventing the Internet is a piece of cake compared to developing drugs.)

That is the irony of the charge of price-gouging. The target of the charge is the one providing us with the needed product. Gasoline and medicines don’t fall from heaven. They have to be produced, which means that billions of dollars have to be invested in — yes — “risky schemes” that might not yield a product valued by consumers and hence profits. It is a tad inappropriate to attack the people willing to take those risks. Moreover — and this will be news to Mr. Gore-entrepreneurs have the same “human rights” that the vice president incessantly pontificates about. Specifically, they have property rights, which are at the root of all rights. Beginning with the property right each of us has in his own person, all rights are property rights. Assault property rights in one form and you weaken them in all forms. The Clinton-Gore administration has been openly hostile to property rights in an unprecedented manner. It is no surprise, then, that they have been equally hostile to rights not thought of as property rights, such as the right to be free from government snooping.

If Al Gore thinks the prices of gas and drugs ought to be lower, he is perfectly free to raise capital and compete with Exxon and Pfizer. Why doesn’t he do something productive for a change, instead of demagogically savaging bona fide productive men and women and threatening the use of physical force against them? We know the answer to that question.

Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va., and editor of Ideas on Liberty magazine.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.