All Commentary
Friday, January 5, 2018

Oregonians Are Panicking about Self-Serve Gas Pumps

The collective panic attack over the prospect of pumping their own gas is a perfect example of why dumb regulations exist.

Oregon and New Jersey are the only two states that ban self-service gas stations. But thanks to a new law that went into effect on January 1, customers can now pump their own gas in Oregon, though only at stand-alone gas stations in counties with fewer than 40,000 residents. Elsewhere, the ban still holds.

But even this tiny increase in freedom was apparently too much for some Oregonians. In a Facebook post that’s now gone viral, local news station KTVL polled their fans for their thoughts about the new law. Some did not take the news well.

When Pumping Gas Is Just a Bridge Too Far

Here are a few premium selections:

“Many people are not capable of knowing how to pump gas and the hazards of not doing it correctly. Besides I don’t want to go to work smelling of gas when I get it on my hands or clothes. I agree. Very bad idea.”

“I don’t even know HOW to pump gas and I am 62, native Oregonian…..I say NO THANKS! I don’t want to smell like gasoline!”

“I’ve lived in this state all my life and I REFUSE to pump my own gas. I had to do it once in California while visiting my brother and almost died doing it. This a service only qualified people should perform. I will literally park at the pump and wait until someone pumps my gas. I can’t even.”

Of course, every day, tens of millions of Americans in 48 states pump their own gas and — miraculously — manage to avoid setting themselves on fire or drowning in gas. And anyone who doesn’t want to end up like one of Derek Zoolander’s friends can turn to Lifehacker or Wikihow for guidance.

Yet as hysterical as those reactions are, unfortunately, they’re actually not that far off from the state’s official justifications for the ban. As part of the Oregon law, legislators listed a staggering 17 different reasons to defend the state’s “prohibition on the self-service dispensing of Class 1 flammable liquids at retail.” According to the legislature, pumping your own gas is a “health hazard,” whereas requiring “properly trained” attendants to pump gas “reduces fire hazards.” In addition, self-service stations expose customers to “the dangers of crime and slick surfaces,” while leaving small children in the car to pay for gas “creates a dangerous situation.”

Good, Old-Fashioned Rent-Seeking

Meanwhile, established businesses are more than happy to fuel and exploit public panic for their own gain. For instance, New Jersey’s ban on self-service was heavily backed by the Gasoline Retailers Association, which faced greater competition from rival gas stations that allowed their customers to pump their own gas.

Rent-seeking is one reason why many regulations that seem so obviously silly or pointless persist. Since those newer stations had no need for attendants, they cut costs, and passed on the savings to consumers in the form of cheaper gas. That threatened the bottom line for incumbent gas station owners, who lobbied the state legislature to ban self-service in 1949. (Oregon’s ban arrived two years later.) As Star-Ledger columnist Paul Mulshine recounted, any feigned concerns for public safety were merely a “cover story” for something “a lot more devious and corrupt.”

A combination of fear-mongering and rent-seeking is one reason why many regulations that seem so obviously silly or pointless persist. A new book by the Institute for Justice details how “bottleneckers” thrive on regulatory bottlenecks, particularly in the field of occupational licensing.

It’s Not Just Gas Stations

In the Beaver State, licenses to paint nails require more training than a license to become an emergency medical technician. Take Louisiana, which is the only state in the nation that requires a license to arrange flowers. When the Institute for Justice sued on behalf of several aspiring florists, the Retail Florist on the Louisiana Horticulture Commission (yes, that’s a real position) testified that the law was necessary to protect customers from the menace of exposed picks, broken wire, and infected dirt. Incredibly, a federal judge bought that argument, and ruled that the florist license was “rationally related to the government interest of public welfare and safety.”

Or consider Florida’s license for interior design, which requires six years of education and training to obtain. When the state legislature considered a repeal bill, one licensed interior designer testified that using the wrong fabrics could spread infectious diseases in hospitals.

“What you’re basically doing,” she told lawmakers who backed deregulation, “is contributing to 88,000 deaths every year.” Ultimately, the reform failed, meaning Florida is still one of just three states to license the practice.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Oregon’s licensing laws rank as the eighth most burdensome in the country. In the Beaver State, licenses to paint nails, cut hair, or install drywall all require vastly more experience and training than a license to become an emergency medical technician, who provide life-saving care to those who may need it (like people terrified of pumping their own gas).

Reprinted from Forbes