A sunny day, a serene cruise along a french autoroute. In front a monster truck is about to pass another. As it draws abreast, it slows down. Both now form an impenetrable barrier, and the truckers begin to hit their brakes until they come to a full stop. You can guess the rest. Within a few minutes, the autoroute has turned into a gigantic parking lot — two cars wide, several kilometers long. But here comes the surprise. Did those frustrated car drivers pound their horns? Did they threaten the truckers with bodily harm? No, they just sat there. Some even cheered the two road warriors, who had just taken the law into their own hands, while advising the French government to inflict an anatomical impossibility on itself.
This is the European paradox 2000. In France above all, and in Britain, Belgium and Germany, strategically placed groups are blackmailing the general populace and humiliating the governments. They are exploiting the enormous vulnerability of a "flow economy," in which only a few choke points have to be occupied to bring chaos. But why do the people, those hardest hit by the terror of the few, acquiesce or even cheer?
There is a simple answer. The price of gasoline is the bread price of the 21st century. "Bread" stands for food, an absolute necessity of life. Let it run scarce or soar in price, and the people will riot. In today's flow economy, mobility has become the vital victual, so to speak. And motor fuel — gasoline or diesel — is the stuff from which mobility is made.
So it's nice to have those truckers spearhead the revolt — let George do it, and I'll just sit here. It is also easy to blame flesh-and-blood governments for the cruel deeds of the impersonal market. There is more demand than the supply can satisfy; that is the long and short of it. Why? Economic growth all over the world has whetted the appetite for energy; prices have been too low in the past (remember $10-a-barrel crude?), so the search for new deposits has slowed; stocks of heating oil are at the lowest level in 20 years in the U.S.; refinery capacity has dwindled; opec has finally got its act together. And on and on.
But a motorist can't go after those sheiks, including the blue-eyed ones from Norway, Britain and Russia. So people pounce on their own governments. And these, too, have a lot to answer for. If diesel were sold untaxed in Europe, it would fetch around 35¢ a liter. Yet in Britain it costs four times as much and in France almost two-and-a-half times more. These taxes fill the tanks of the treasury. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, as if the ancien regime in France had tripled the price of bread to finance its wars or its palaces.
A gasoline tax that rises with the cost of the product is a wonderful way to make money for the powers that be. Demand for fuel is very inelastic in the short run, so governments cash in along with the sheiks. Rising energy prices are a wondrous windfall for the state; no need to fight nasty battles in parliament in order to raise direct taxes on income or investments. Of course, the purported goal is a lofty one: to make energy ever dearer so as to wean the nation from dependence on a dwindling, ecology-damaging resource, 40% of which is concentrated in the volatile Middle East.
Except: to worry about ecology and dependence is to worry about the long run. Ballooning "bread prices" cut into real incomes today. Add to this the ease with which modern democratic governments can be brought to their knees. France is the perfect example, a country where, ironically, statism runs strong while the state is actually quite weak. So many well-organized groups — railroaders, fishermen, farmers — have taken the state hostage in the past and got away with it. In the end, the French government has always buckled.
Will the others heed vox populi, too? Tony Blair of Britain and Gerhard Schröder of Germany have vowed to stand firm against the gale. But it all depends on how many thousands of filling stations are closed down, how many autobahns are blocked for how long, doesn't it? After all, there is a difference between the ancien regime and a government for, of and by the people.
Marie-Antoinette, when told of the bread riots, famously proclaimed, "Let them eat cake." In the end, she paid for this quip with her head. Democratic governments cannot afford such cynicism. They are vulnerable for two reasons. Right now, in the very short run, because they are so sensitive to pressure on their flow economies, which can be paralyzed by seizure of a few choke points. In the longer run, it is death by ballot — no need to storm the Bastille, a thousand trucks will do.
Today's elected kings are not like Louis XVI. Let the storm blow long enough, and watch King Blair — as well as Emperor Schröder — trim his sails. It takes a very brave government, indeed, to shrug off the "bread price" complaints of the voters. They are hungry, and they are the boss.