I have to say I mostly agree with this sentiment from President Bush's press conference yesterday, when he was asked whether he'd urge Americans to conserve more energy:
They're smart enough to figure out whether they're going to drive less or not. I mean, you know, it's interesting what the price of gasoline has done, is it caused people to drive less. That's why they want smaller cars, they want to conserve. But the consumer is plenty bright, Mark. The marketplace works. ...
I think people ought to conserve and be wise about how they use gasoline and energy. Absolutely. And there's some easy steps people can take. You know, if they're not in their home, they don't keep their air-conditioning running. There's a lot of things people can do. But my point to you, Mark, is that, you know, it's a little presumptuous on my part to dictate to consumers how they live their lives. The American people are plenty capable and plenty smart people and they'll make adjustments to their own pocketbooks.
Aside from it not being government's job, high-profile public conversation crusades often don't work. But the problem, as Matt Yglesias notes, is that public policy often encourages and subsidizes highly consumptive lifestyles in a variety of ways (handouts to fossil-fuel companies and owners of McMansions, huge highway budgets, and so forth). As long as entrenched interests block a move to more a neutral governmental posture, you're left with stupid and pointless feel-good measures like public officials encouraging people to conserve, to no avail. So if President Bush really doesn't want to dictate to consumers how to live their lives, he should stop helping make certain options artificially cheap and attractive to them. It's ridiculous if policies aimed at conservation are deemed "presumptuous" and patronizing, while policies that have the effect of increasing energy consumption are all fine and dandy.