by Ron Ross

You've no doubt noticed that service stations are becoming more automated. Credit card-activated pumps make it possible to gas up and be on your way in a minimum amount of time. There are even experimental stations that fuel cars with robot arms so that the driver can stay seated in his car.

Oregonians, however, do not have the opportunity to benefit from these time- and labor-saving developments. As you know if you've ever traveled there, self-service gas stations are illegal in Oregon.

I don't know the specific reasons why fueling up your own vehicle is a crime in Oregon, but I'm sure that when the legislation was passed compelling reasons were given.

Gasoline, after all, is highly flammable. Handling it is not a job that should be left in the hands of amateurs. Perhaps the legislation was precipitated by a serious accident involving a person fueling his own car.

Gasoline fumes are also a source of pollution, a problem that may be aggravated by careless self-servers who "top off" their tanks. And I'm sure it was noted that prohibiting self-service would "create jobs."

This regulation is not especially significant in itself, but the Oregon law illustrates problems with regulations generally.

Self-service gas stations have been around for decades. With the billions of fill-ups that have occurred in that time, some accidents must have happened. It's reasonable to assume that if professionals had done all the filling, some of those accidents would have been avoided. But at what cost?

Self-service saves time because you don't have to wait for an attendant, and the credit-card pumps save even more time. Prohibiting self-service adds up to a huge drain on a resource which is increasingly scarce for most people I know.

Most of the millions of regulations imposed on our economy are variations of Oregon's law against self-service. These regulations ossify the economy and stifle the basic human drive to think of better ways to accomplish tasks. The needs they address and the benefits they confer are in most cases vastly exaggerated. The recent controversy over the requirement that automobiles have airbags is another example.

Everyone who owns or manages a business knows of government regulations which are counterproductive and even asinine. The harm done to individual businesses multiplies and affects practically every aspect of the economy. And much of the damage is insidious because it is hidden. How do you measure, for instance, the lost benefits from innovations that don't happen because of cumbersome regulations?

Our economy is incredibly productive despite the swarms of regulations that nibble away at efficiency and innovation. Imagine how productive we could be if the economy were freed from unnecessary and counterproductive regulations. Some economists estimate that everyone could be earning 10 to 20 percent more in an economy less burdened by regulations.

Some progress has been made in recent years in regard to requiring cost-benefit analyses of regulations, both for the ones being proposed and the ones already in effect. Measuring costs and benefits is not always easy, but it's often possible to arrive at reasonably accurate estimates which are necessary to be useful in making choices.

If we choose not to use benefit-cost analysis we are left basically with the totally unsystematic, haphazard political process. The checks and balances in the political arena are weak and inconsistent. An increased reliance on a benefit-cost approach would be a big step in the right direction. Maybe then Oregonians would be liberated to do what their fellow countrymen in the other 49 states are free to do -- pump their own gas.


A former professor of economics, Ron Ross is a financial planner with Premier Financial Group, Eureka.

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