Furthermore, a large part of the world's oil supply comes from nations such as Venezuela, Nigeria, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Russia that are actually or potentially unstable, hostile to the United States, or both, and it would be prudent to reduce our dependence on such suppliers.Posner here invokes the old shibboleth of dependence on foreign oil. The problem, as I’ve noted before [second post contains a correction to the first], is that there’s more than one kind of dependence. In one sense, we are dependent on foreign oil just because we’re dependent on oil. A reduction in demand for oil would reduce this kind of dependence. But in another sense, we are dependent on foreign oil because, and to the extent that, whatever amount of oil we consume comes disproportionately from other countries. To be more precise, since oil is sold on a world market, the real question is not the origin of the particular barrels we get, but what percentage of the world’s oil supply comes from hostile or unreliable producers. And it turns out that this form of dependence could actually increase as a result of a reduction in demand for oil. Why? Posner gives the reason himself, without seeming to recognize its significance:
Just as an increase in demand will cause higher-cost oil to be produced -- oil that would not have been economical to produce when the market price was lower -- so a reduction in demand will cause that higher-cost oil to be withdrawn from the market and so the average price of oil will fall. In effect, income of the producing nations will be transferred to the consuming nations in the form of gasoline taxes imposed by those nations.In other words, if the price of oil fell, the highest-cost oil producers would drop out of the market while the lowest-cost oil producers would stay in. And who are the lowest-cost oil producers? Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Nigeria (when they’re not having riots and strikes), Iran and Iraq (when they’re not having civil wars), etc. The result? Although we would be less dependent on oil, we’d also be more dependent on unstable and/or hostile countries to meet our remaining oil needs.
So which form of dependence matters? I think probably both. Posner’s right to suggest that reduced demand (possibly induced by a gas tax) would cut into the profits of the foreign producers. That’s a good thing if, say, you’re concerned with depriving terrorists of funds. On the other hand, if you’re worried about the vulnerability of our economy to sudden price shocks brought on by civil strife, war, geopolitical tensions, and so on, then you might prefer higher prices as a form of insurance that keeps the higher-cost but more reliable producers in business. Trade-offs are tough like that.