To intervene or not in the free market, and other philosophical conundrums

If you’re a believer in the free market doing a better job than government in creating prosperity and opportunity, how about this little dilemma:

How much more does it cost to haul fuel from the refinery to Slave Lake than it does to haul it from the same refinery to Fawcett? Not much, but the price at the pump for a litre of gasoline takes a big jump between Fawcett and Slave Lake.

‘It’s so stupid!’ says one fellow, who says it’s almost worth it to drive to the city to do your shopping lately, given an almost 30-cent difference in gas price. What ought to be done, he continues, is for a suit to be filed with the consumer protection office of the provincial government, alleging theft on the part of the fuel companies. That might get somebody’s attention. Has it ever been tried?

There might be a case. The Consumer Investigations Unit of Service Alberta lists ‘unfair trade practices’ as one of the things it will look into. A further list on the website mentions ‘considerations’ that would be taken into account when reviewing a complaint. One of these is ‘the vulnerability of the consumers.’ Another is ‘the number of people affected.’ Check and check. Another is ‘available evidence.’ Well, enough said on that point. The evidence is there. There is an imaginary line on a map that causes fuel prices to jump when a truck crosses it. What’s apparently happening is that consumers in Slave Lake and further north are paying the cost of hauling fuel from Westlock to Fawcett, plus whatever pennies it costs per litre to get it this much further.

There is a dilemma here. A lot of the people who get worked up over this built-in northern-rural disadvantage are the first ones who say the government should not be interfering in the free market. On the other hand, they won’t turn up their noses at any benefit that flows from the government doing exactly that. If the federal and provincial government ever get a pipeline to the west coast built, the price of oil will presumably rise (so the experts tell us, anyway) and certain benefits will accrue. Certain disadvantages would also arise – higher fuel prices being the obvious one, and we’re right back where we started from.

So… how about it? The current provincial government – much though its detractors don’t like to admit it – has been doing some good things in reducing the rural disadvantage. Should it be taking a look at the artificially high gasoline prices we are forced to pay? Or is that too much interference with the sacred free enterprise?

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