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Critics say there's not much to the long-awaited Bush "national energy strategy." They're right - but that's probably its greatest asset.

The recurrent fallacy of the past two decades has been that an economic problem as central as energy requires a massive central government "solution." The idea swings along so neatly in armchair and classroom discussion that few of its adherents seem to have noticed how irrelevant it has been to actually dealing with America's energy needs.The chief legacies of the 1970s infatuation with such theorizing were a hugely expanded government bureaucracy, and repeated political interventions that in fact delayed the market's adjustments to changing economic realities. It was only after government energy policy began to pull back from excessive regulation a decade ago that we truly came to terms with higher-priced oil; as the bureaucratic grip eased, the world oil price surprised the theorists by going down, not up.

Now, as the Persian Gulf crisis stirs vague, frightened memories of the 1973 OPEC embargo and the 1979 Iran shock, the same ostriches are emerging from America's intellectual deserts with the same authoritarian "solutions." One wonders which is greater: their habitual disdain for individual economic freedom or their disregard of the authentic lessons of recent energy history.

There's nothing new, of course, to this attitude of "if we have a problem, surely bigger government is the answer." (Presumably these people find it absolutely astounding that we ever got over the 19th century whale-oil crisis without the help of the Department of Energy.) It's just surprising that so many members of what unaccountably passes for a deep-thinking American "establishment" still believe in such discredited guff - at a time when so much of the rest of the world has finally begun to recognize the gaping holes in such rhetoric about authoritarian government "solutions."

To those Americans unhappy that the Bush plan does not "mandate" more of the conservation they deem neglected, know that such changes are occurring anyhow, and with greater rapidity than the conventional wisdom understands. One reason why the global economy has been able to adjust so much more rapidly than predicted of late is that businesses around the world have employed extensive computerization and conservation to make dramatically better use of their energy supplies. For example, each unit of Western industrial output now requires fully 40 percent less oil than it did in 1973 - and that trend will continue, especially if the bureaucrats stay away.

The Bush plan is, of course, just the opening salvo in a new - and naturally gaseous - energy war on Capitol Hill. The most controversial parts of the administration proposals are likely to be its efforts, on the production side, to reduce American dependence on foreign sources.

Two planks, in particular, are certain to generate more steam heat than electric light. The effort to encourage, through deregulation and tax breaks, the domestic output of fossil fuels will face opposition not only from conservationists (with the extremists on both sides inevitably having to compromise) but from those to whom a fate worse than economic collapse would be anything that leads to higher profits for American oil companies.

And the proposal to remove obstacles to the licensing of nuclear plants will run into the usual objections from the Jane Fonda School of Economic Philosophy, even though practically every serious student of our long-range energy needs will tell you (when the door is shut and the microphones are off) that the day inescapably will come when we stop the mindless, emotional sloganizing and get on with the economic task of developing safe nuclear power for the 21st century.

So, while the upcoming Washington debate is likely to focus on complaints that the Bush proposals are insufficiently intrusive in private economic decisions, the underlying reality is that most government actions in the energy field would have been better left in the realm of professorial theory. As oil prices rise, there is an authentic incentive to turn to conservation and alternative sources that is far more powerful than any fiat. Getting government out of the way, by streamlining regulation and curbing political distortions, would be far more helpful than establishing another 15 dictatorial Washington agencies. Unless, of course, you're hoping to be on the payroll yourself.