If you need evidence of the strange quality of government-managed business, look no further than your energy companies.

Imagine for a minute that your cable TV company sends you a letter that says “We’ve been monitoring your use of pay-per-view movies, and we found that you buy 20 percent more movies than your neighbors. Here are some ideas for reducing your purchases of movies: …..”

Or imagine that your cell phone company tells you that you’re using more than your average share of minutes–though you’re well within the minutes alloted on your calling plan.

Yesterday I received in the mail a letter from my natural gas company. It said that I am using more gas than my neighbors, and recommended several steps I might take to use — that is to say, buy — less of their product.

Wait. Is a company that is selling me a valuable, legal product telling me to buy less of their product? In a word, yes.

Why on earth would they do that? In large measure, government policy.

As a regulated utility, the gas company is legally guaranteed a rate of return, something that most other businesses don’t enjoy. In other words, it doesn’t need to worry about increasing its market share. It doesn’t need to worry about going out of business. And apparently, it doesn’t need to worry about selling more of its product to the customers it has.

Another reason for the “don’t buy more of our stuff” letter is that its ability to actually sell more stuff is constrained by government. This is common in the energy industry, and I’ll focus on electricity, since I’m more familiar with that. Minnesota has a moratorium on the development of nuclear power plants, and efforts to lift it failed last legislative session. The Next Generation Energy Act, meanwhile, prohibits Minnesota from “importing” electricity from other states, if that electricity comes from new coal-fired plants. (A violation of the Interstate Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution? Sounds that way to me.) Since government regulates rates, they also want to regulate the capital-expansion plans of the business.

All this is of course rationalized by the argument that electricity is a “natural monopoly.” Deregulation has, though, been tried (sometimes badly, sometimes not so badly), so that argument may fade over time. But then there’s a relatively new argument for the regulatory/don’t build regime, and that’s “climate change,” the gift that, for regulators, keeps on giving.

Not to be melodramatic about it, but the consumption of energy, whether in the form of electricity for power and light or heat for sheltering us from the harsh winters, is what makes life in Minnesota possible. If not life itself, life above the subsistence level.

What a strange thing, then, that public policy is geared towards nudging everyone to buy less of it.

Bonus observation: See this article I wrote years ago on why energy conservation-efforts fail.