January 18, 2018

Understanding Oregon’s Gas-Fueled Technopanic

Michael Farren

Research Fellow

If you’ve read a newspaper, listened to the radio, or spent any time on social media this month you probably had a good laugh at some Oregonians’ reactions to the idea of pumping their own gas. The change in the law allowing for rural self-service gas stations has provoked actual statements like “I don’t even know HOW to pump gas.”

Viewed through a more compassionate lens, these people are caught in the grip of a minor “technopanic.” It happens to all of us from time to time, and understanding it — rather than laughing at it — would help all of us.

Technopanics can occur when we’re confronted with a new technology, especially one that upsets the balance we’re used to and comfortable with. Fears are often expressed through genuine concern for the safety of supposedly defenseless people. When trains were the latest technology, people worried they were unhealthy for women because the speed would make their uteruses fly out. When cars came along, some worried that women — being delicate flowers — wouldn’t be able to manage their “devil wagons.”

Unfounded fears — some far more ridiculous than those of a minority of modern Oregonians — often make their way into law. For example, in 19th-century England, “red flag” laws mandated a 4 mph speed limit and required three people to drive every car: a pilot, a co-pilot, and a person to walk 60 yards ahead of the vehicle waving a red flag to warn others.

More often than not, technopanics are stoked by people whose livelihoods are threatened. England’s red flag laws were partly a result of citizens’ fears over the strange new automobile — and also encouraged by the railroad industry, which feared competition. Innovation in the British automobile industry suffered for the 30 years the law was in place, while the railroads kept their monopoly a little longer.

Of course Oregonians are only being exposed to technology that the rest of the country has taken for granted since the 1970s. Between 1969 and 1982, self-service gasoline rose from 16 percent of gas sold to 72 percent. By 1981 Oregon and New Jersey were the only states banning self-service gas stations.

There’s a strong status quo bias built into technopanics. We naturally long for the familiar and fear the unknown. But pushing past that discomfort has allowed us to build better societies and stronger economies. Once we accept change, we adjust to the new normal surprisingly quickly, and we’re getting better at this over time.

After the invention of the telephone it took more than 40 years for half of U.S. households to own one, but smartphones reached the same frequency of use in only five years. Despite the technopanic caused by the first telephones (which included fears that evil spirits might travel through the phone wires — really!), in less than a generation smartphones have become the new normal.

And while it’s fun to laugh at sentiments like “many people are not capable of knowing how to pump gas,” overbearing regulations justified by exaggerated public safety concerns are no fun at all. George Mason University professor Alex Tabarrok points out that almost every state has equally ridiculous occupational licensure laws.

Much like early auto regulations in England, in many cases occupational licensing is designed to protect established professionals from new competition as much as anything. New Jersey — now alone in banning self-service gas stations — did so because an entrepreneur in 1949 was giving customers a bargain using self-service pumps. Because he ignored the collusion in his industry, his unscrupulous competitors persuaded legislators to make his business illegal.

The fear of new technology can be a powerful and often misguided motivation for public policy, especially when it is twisted to nefarious ends. The best option isn’t to resist the change, but to prepare for the opportunities that change may bring.

Embracing the status quo too tightly can have real economic consequences, and in Oregon’s case, is occasionally hysterical.