A long history of resistance to self-service
NEW YORK – Poor Oregon. Not content with being one of only two states to still ban self-service stations, it may soon decide to limit the number of automatic checkouts in a store to two. That would be the practical effect of the Grocery Service and Community Protection Act, a proposal unions are pushing for the November ballot.
I love Oregon, one of the most beautiful states in the country. And I understand that cashiers are worried about their jobs. But the restriction is a bad idea, the latest in a long line of special interest limits on purchases that have ended up in the trash of history.
When we are debating the wisdom of limiting autonomy, the burden should always be on the side arguing for less freedom. So what is the case in favor of restriction? According to Portland’s ABC television affiliate, Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain said the unions have taken up the issue because they believe vending machines are part of a “strategy of ‘deliberate enterprise’ aimed at reducing labor costs and eliminating jobs.
He also said it had a disproportionate impact on workers of color and posed a challenge for customers, especially the elderly and people with disabilities.
While “color workers” add a nice contemporary twist, the argument isn’t all that different from those that have been made against almost all efforts to make shopping easier for customers. Many freedoms that buyers now take for granted were fiercely opposed by powerful interests and the regulators who listened to them. Here it can be instructive to take a brief trip through history.
Let’s start with Oregon’s controversial ban on self-serve gas stations in most states. The ban was the subject of much mockery, but when it was passed in 1949, the legislation was hardly unusual. At least a dozen states, as well as a number of major cities, have banned self-service stations in whole or in part.
Looking back, it’s easy to see this as interest group law, but at the time the bans were championed as progressive, protecting the safety of a public who might otherwise cause gasoline spills and even fires. Localities that banned stations considered themselves morally superior to those that did not. In 1947, a Pennsylvania newspaper mocked the self-service stations that were popping up in Southern California as “tourist attractions” that only survived because the “pretty girls” on roller skates took over. your money but forced you to get your hands dirty checking your tire pressure and cleaning them. your own windshield.
But self-service was suddenly everywhere. Butcher shops worried about large grocery stores where meat was waiting, pre-cut and pre-packaged, for the consumer to make his choice. In 1949, after self-service meat counters became a big hit in suburban Chicago, unionized meat cutters organized against a proposal to allow them inside city limits. The Chicago Tribune editorialized that the union is bothering consumers tired of the “bottleneck” at the meat counter, not to mention staying on track with technological advancement. (Self-service meats had become possible due to the rise of relatively inexpensive refrigeration.)
We don’t think of choosing pain relievers and vitamins off the shelf these days, but once upon a time, resistance to the practice was just as strong. In the 1950s, pharmacists in Pennsylvania demanded a ban on drugstore counters in self-service food stores, arguing that allowing them to harm consumers. Around the same time, the Minnesota Pharmacy Board passed a rule prohibiting pharmacies from selling “any item” except behind the counter, a ban that led to a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality.
Spend a generation. Think of something as simple as going to an ATM to get money. In the late 1970s, when machines were new, local banks successfully pushed many communities to ban the use of the machines by consumers whose accounts were located in other states. Representative Frank Annunzio, a powerful congressman from Illinois, warned that the use of ATMs amounted to “a gigantic game of Russian roulette.”
All of this to say that efforts in Oregon to restrict automated payment channels fit into a common, albeit reactionary, historical pattern. Of course, we all hate that advancements in technology put people out of work. Presumably, there were those who hated the same tendency when it engulfed butchers and drug addicts. But in the end, buyers still preferred not to wait at the butcher or drugstore counter.
The time spent in line is a cost to the consumer. Like precut meats and drugs on the shelves, automated checkout lines make shopping in stores cheaper. If protective legislation keeps purchasing costs artificially high, consumers will simply shift more of their spending to the online world.
Granted, not everyone will calculate utility the same way. The Internet is full of calls to boycott ATMs. Some buyers, in solidarity with potentially displaced workers, refuse to use them. These are reasonable matters of private choice.
But to limit the freedom of consumers to make up their minds is to subscribe to a protectionist tradition that history has wisely set aside.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg opinion columnist.
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