Advancing a Free Society

The Oil Market Panic

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The high price of oil is once again a front page story in The New York Times. Part one of its story asks why the prices are high now. Part two of that story asks what, if anything, should be done in response to those price increases. The short answer to the first question is that the increase in prices is due to contractions in the supply of oil driven by the instability in the Middle East. The short answer to the second question is that we should do nothing at all.

The greatest casualty of the current debate over the price of oil is to turn sensible market responses to its scarcity into grist for a political mill in an election year. The blame game between the political parties is likely to lead to flawed reform proposals that offer no short-term relief, but do impair the long-term efficiency of oil markets.

Without question, the problem can be traced back to a renegade Iran. For good and sufficient political reasons, the West has come to see that the Iranian nuclear threat is not just bluster. Indeed, it poses far greater risks to world peace and the political order than even a major disruption in oil supplies.

Hence an anxious West has now put into place a reasonably effective concerted effort to cut off Iran from the world’s banking system, and to block the use of Iranian oil internationally, which has been made easier by the Saudis’ willingness to expand their own shipments into the world markets. Nor have the Iranians sat back idly. They have cut off exports to the United Kingdom and France, a move that is largely symbolic. But the Iranian threat to close theStrait of Hormuz, through which about one-third the world’s oil supplies travel, is not symbolic. Nor is the movement of the U.S. aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, into the Strait of Hormuz, merely symbolic.

Continue reading Richard Epstein…

(photo credit: star5112)