Burton on the Bay
Vol. 9, No. 37
September 13-19, 2001
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Maryland’s Fuel Monopoly Law Has
Me Thinking Like Mencken

The government consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with the other, no special talent for the business of government; they have only the talent for getting and holding office.
- H.L. Mencken

The Baltimore Evening Sun
I never got to meet H.L. He passed away earlier in 1956, the year I joined The Evening Sun as its outdoor editor. Anyway, he had left the paper many years before my arrival. But if I were to have a choice of spending a few hours with someone I missed in these travels through life, he would be listed among the top. The very top.

I share with him his inherent skepticism of government and politics. No, skepticism isn’t the right word. Let’s tell it like it is. Distrust, pure distrust, is more appropriate.

This week’s topic brings to mind another few words from H.L., which I find fitting this time around. In Newspaper Days: 1899-1906, published in 1941, he wrote:

When A annoys or injures B on the pretense of saving or improving X, A is a scoundrel.

Now let’s bring all this together -

But might I first inform readers that my notes are on a table that once was in the office of the Sage of Baltimore. Back in the ‘70s, Sunpapers was involved in a remodeling project, and in cleaning house offered for sale a batch of old goodies from typewriters to desks. For 15 bucks I got the little table, where possibly Mencken placed his notes, mail or copy at sometime or other.

The Maryland Equation

Back to A, B and X.

A is our General Assembly, which meets in Annapolis annually to further complicate, if not discombobulate, our governmental process - while enjoying all the free drinks, meals, tickets and slaps on the back the legions of lobbyists can offer.

B represents those who would sell at a discount price fuel - gasoline or diesel - the exorbitantly priced liquid that today we are usually forced to pump for ourselves, as full service is either not available or demands an even more exorbitant tariff.

And, dear readers/consumers, X is you, me or anyone else who has a jalopy that requires fuel from the pumps to get it from here to there and back again. Unless we live close to a bus stop or resort to shank’s mare - as country folk say - we have no choice but to patronize B, those who sell us fuel.

So, A, our very own representatives, who we supposedly elect (and too often re-elect) to govern in our best interests, have decided they want to protect not only B, the service station operators, but also X, you and me. So they have come up with a law, one they tell us (with a straight face), that will benefit both B and X.

It all boils down to this: Effective Oct. 1 we can no longer shop around to get a real bargain on the stuff that fuels our vehicles. It will be against the law for B, the service stations, to sell fuel to X, you and me, below the going wholesale price.

See how government works. A is tinkering with B for what it tells us is the best interest of X. So those with big thirsty fuel tanks can no longer go on bargain hunts when the gauge on the instrument panel reads close to E, as in empty. Now we see who the scoundrels are.

Fair Trade?

What ever happened, I might ask, to free enterprise, a free market, competition in merchandising, the quest for a bargain? Are we going back to the days of yore when the so-called Fair Trade practice was in vogue, under which no merchant could sell a product for less than the fair-trade price established by the manufacturer?

We’re told - with a straight face - by legislators (who certainly fully realized there were more votes among the independent service station operators than there are among the relatively few super service discount stations) that they are protecting us and the independents.

We’re also told by said legislators that there aren’t enough outlets selling fuel below cost to make that much of a difference. But they didn’t tell us why - if there aren’t that many bargain outlets to upset the apple cart - they needed, in their finite wisdom, to pass such a ridiculous law, which is stifling competition and hitting us in the pocketbook.

By the way, there are 1,400 dealers in the Maryland Service Station Association, which obviously has potent clout and whatever else it takes to line up votes.

Free Choice
First, let me make one thing very plain. I patronize my neighborhood service station, Riviera Beach Shell, where prices are 12 cents a gallon higher than at Costco, about 10 miles distant. This is a personal decision. I do so because I know when a windshield wiper fails me in a downpour, the mechanics at Shell will get it working again.

They will also change my oil, tune my engine or do anything else to keep my Subaru perking. Such services are not available at the super, super stations. I appreciate that the fellows at Shell fill a niche in my needs, and by patronizing them, I am ensuring they will be around to continue to do so.

It’s something akin to my buying fishing tackle. I might pay a trifle more at independent tackle shops than at the big super outdoor stores, but when a rod or reel needs service or I want fresh bait, it’s available at the independent outlets. Not at the bargain houses.

I don’t need nor do I want Big Brother to implement laws to set prices to ‘protect’ me. Like almost everyone else, I like to shop around for bargains, though I do so selectively, taking into consideration several things, among them community and service.

Scraping Bottom
When will this government interference stop? Will the day come when a supermarket can’t advertise catsup or corn flakes at below cost to lure customers through their doors to buy other goodies? Or will some association of so-called convenience stores successfully lobby our legislators to ban other stores from selling below their prices the products for which they charge such outlandish tolls?

In a nation where free enterprise is a cornerstone of government, something has gone awry. Stifled is healthy competition that prompts businesses to become more efficient, offering better services and incentives - all of which would really be to the benefit of all consumers.

The only possible benefit evident via the fuel monopoly law is that by promoting higher prices, some motorists might have second thoughts about buying those lumbering, gas-guzzling SUVs, the owners of which obviously have no concerns about global warming, acid rain, clean air, waters such as the Chesapeake Bay and what we should all realize - that the reservoir of oil beneath us and the seas is not without limit.
There is a bottom to every barrel. Enough said …

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly