Bad Logic Kills
Why Don't CAFE Standards Conserve Gasoline and Oil?
AUGUST 01, 2002 by SHELDON RICHMAN
A big part of mankind’s problem may be the simple failure to recognize a fallacious argument.
The columnist Arianna Huffington recently criticized the Bush administration’s renewed intention to exploit the oil under the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). She proposed that instead of promoting oil drilling in Alaska, the administration should raise automobile mileage standards. But, she wrote, “the White House helped kill [a Senate] plan, which would have saved about 2.5 billion barrels of oil a day, roughly the amount we currently import from the Middle East.”
Huffington is referring to the federal CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) program, which since the 1970s has required automakers to achieve a specified miles-per-gallon average for their fleets. The program was enacted to conserve gasoline and oil. However, the Competitive Enterprise Institute says it “has yet to demonstrably reduce gasoline consumption.”
No mystery here. It is people, not inanimate cars, who will determine the consequences of the program. If we can drive our cars more cheaply, we will tend to drive more than before. Human beings are conscious of their circumstances, and we adjust our behavior accordingly. If my car gets 30 MPG instead of 15, why would anyone expect me to use less fuel? I can go twice as far for the same money.
Maybe the authors of the original legislation didn’t think of that, but their fallacy has been pointed out repeatedly for more than 25 years. (Kudos for CEI for making this one of its missions.) So anyone who today argues that higher CAFE standards will save gasoline is either engaging in demagogy or is incapable of analyzing an argument.
CAFE has had one demonstrable effect: To meet the fuel standards, the automakers have given us smaller, lighter, less crash-worthy vehicles. Thus, according to the National Academy of Sciences, an additional 1,300 to 2,600 people die on the highways each year.
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