You may take our freedom, but you will never take our cheap gas!

Miraflores/Getty Images In 2006, Thomas Friedman argued in an FP cover story that “the price of oil and the pace of freedom always move in opposite directions.” The price you pay at the pump is another matter. In a column for the Guardian, Julian Borger examines the excessive fuel subsidies that allow Iranian drivers to ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
596025_080312_chavez2.jpg
596025_080312_chavez2.jpg

Miraflores/Getty Images

In 2006, Thomas Friedman argued in an FP cover story that "the price of oil and the pace of freedom always move in opposite directions." The price you pay at the pump is another matter. In a column for the Guardian, Julian Borger examines the excessive fuel subsidies that allow Iranian drivers to enjoy gas at about 12¢ per liter. There are, of course, numerous side effects to contend with -- clogged roads, air pollution, forced rationing, and less incentives to build refineries -- but Iranians remain stubbornly attached to their cheap gas. Borger sees a limitation on Tehran's political power:

Everyone I talk to, including officials, realises that the petrol subsidies make no sense, but no government since the 1979 revolution has had the political courage to cut them. If Condoleezza Rice was right about Iran being a totalitarian society, popular opinion would not matter, but it clearly does.

Miraflores/Getty Images

In 2006, Thomas Friedman argued in an FP cover story that “the price of oil and the pace of freedom always move in opposite directions.” The price you pay at the pump is another matter. In a column for the Guardian, Julian Borger examines the excessive fuel subsidies that allow Iranian drivers to enjoy gas at about 12¢ per liter. There are, of course, numerous side effects to contend with — clogged roads, air pollution, forced rationing, and less incentives to build refineries — but Iranians remain stubbornly attached to their cheap gas. Borger sees a limitation on Tehran’s political power:

Everyone I talk to, including officials, realises that the petrol subsidies make no sense, but no government since the 1979 revolution has had the political courage to cut them. If Condoleezza Rice was right about Iran being a totalitarian society, popular opinion would not matter, but it clearly does.

Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez could probably sympathize. Chávez has succesfully extended his control over the country’s judiciary, legislature, and media, but Venezuelans have made it quite clear that he shouldn’t even think about touching the subsidies that let them fill up their SUVs for about $1.50:

The link between social peace and gasoline so cheap it is almost given away is evident to many motorists. “If you raise gasoline, the people revolt,” said Janeth Lara, 40, an administrator at the Caracas Stock Exchange, as she waited for an attendant to fill the tank of her Jeep Grand Cherokee at a gas station here on a recent day. “It is the only cheap thing.”

Chávez, correctly for once, sees the subsidies as an unfair tax on the non-car owning poor, but politically he can do little more than grumble that he didn’t take power to lead a “Hummer revolution.”

It’s incredible to me that these governments are not shy about attempting massive feats of social engineering, but are afraid to raise gas prices for fear of getting people riled up. Despite all the enormous economic and environmental consequences, both regimes are essentially forced to bribe their middle class with cheap gasoline. It doesn’t seem like a very stable arrangement.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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