Alex Tabarrok beat me to the essay on Oregon’s self-service gas laws that I wanted to write.
Oregon is one of two US states that bans self-service gas stations. Recently, they passed a law relaxing this restriction – self-service is permissable in some rural counties during odd hours of the night. Outraged Oregonians took to social media to protest that self-service was unsafe, that it would destroy jobs, that breathing in gas fumes would kill people, that gas pumping had to be performed by properly credentialed experts – seemingly unaware that most of the rest of the country and the world does it without a second thought.
…well, sort of. All the posts I’ve seen about it show the same three Facebook comments. So at least three Oregonians are outraged. I don’t know about the rest.
But whether it’s true or not, it sure makes a great metaphor. Tabarrok plays it for all it’s worth:
Most of the rest of the America–where people pump their own gas everyday without a second thought–is having a good laugh at Oregon’s expense. But I am not here to laugh because in every state but one where you can pump your own gas you can’t open a barbershop without a license. A license to cut hair! Ridiculous. I hope people in Alabama are laughing at the rest of America. Or how about a license to be a manicurist? Go ahead Connecticut, laugh at the other states while you get your nails done. Buy contact lens without a prescription? You have the right to smirk British Columbia!
All of the Oregonian complaints about non-professionals pumping gas–“only qualified people should perform this service”, “it’s dangerous” and “what about the jobs”–are familiar from every other state, only applied to different services.
Since reading Tabarrok’s post, I’ve been trying to think of more examples of this sort of thing, especially in medicine. There are way too many discrepancies in approved medications between countries to discuss every one of them, but did you know melatonin is banned in most of Europe? (Europeans: did you know melatonin is sold like candy in the United States?) Did you know most European countries have no such thing as “medical school”, but just have college students major in medicine, and then become doctors once they graduate from college? (Europeans: did you know Americans have to major in some random subject in college, and then go to a separate place called “medical school” for four years to even start learning medicine?) Did you know that in Puerto Rico, you can just walk into a pharmacy and get any non-scheduled drug you want without a doctor’s prescription? (source: my father; I have never heard anyone else talk about this, and nobody else even seems to think it is interesting enough to be worth noting).
And I want to mock the people who are doing this the “wrong” way – but can I really be sure? If each of these things decreased the death rate 1%, maybe it would be worth it. But since nobody notices 1% differences in death rates unless they do really good studies, it would just look like some state banning things for no reason, and everyone else laughing at them.
Actually, how sure are we that Oregon was wrong to ban self-service gas stations? How do disabled people pump their gas in most of the country? And is there some kind of negative effect from breathing in gas fumes? I have never looked into any of this.
Maybe the real lesson of Oregon is to demonstrate a sort of adjustment to prevailing conditions. There’s an old saying: “Everyone driving faster than you is a maniac; anyone driving slower than you is a moron”. In the same way, no matter what the current level of regulation is, removing any regulation will feel like inviting catastrophe, and adding any regulation will feel like choking on red tape.
Except it’s broader than regulation. Scientific American recently ran an article on how some far-off tribes barely talk to their children at all. New York Times recently claimed that “in the early 20th century, some doctors considered intellectual stimulation so detrimental to infants that they routinely advised young mothers to avoid it”. And our own age’s prevailing wisdom of “make sure your baby has listened to all Beethoven symphonies by age 3 months or she’ll never get into college” is based on equally flimsy evidence, yet somehow it still feels important to me. If I don’t make my kids listen to Beethoven, it will feel like some risky act of defiance; if I don’t take the early 20th century advice to avoid overstimulating them, it will feel more like I’m dismissing people who have been rightly tossed on the dungheap of history.
And then there’s the discussion from the recent discussion of Madness and Civilization about how 18th century doctors thought hot drinks will destroy masculinity and ruin society. Nothing that’s happened since has really disproved this – indeed, a graph of hot drink consumption, decline of masculinity, and ruinedness of society would probably show a pretty high correlation – it’s just somehow gotten tossed in the bin marked “ridiculous” instead of the bin marked “things we have to worry about”.
So maybe the scary thing about Oregon is how strongly we rely on intuitions about absurdity. If something doesn’t immediately strike us as absurd, then we have to go through the same plodding motions of debate that we do with everything else – and over short time scales, debate is interminable and doesn’t work. Having a notion strike us as absurd short-circuits that and gets the job done – but the Oregon/everyone-else divide shows that intuitions about absurdity are artificial and don’t even survive state borders, let alone genuinely different cultures and value systems.
And maybe this is scarier than usual because I just read Should Schools Ban Kids From Having Best Friends? I assume this is horrendously exaggerated and taken out of context and all the usual things that we’ve learned to expect from news stories, but it got me thinking. Right now enough people are outraged at this idea that I assume it’ll be hard for it to spread too far – and even if it does spread, we can at least feel okay knowing that parents and mentors and other people in society will maintain a belief in friendship and correct kids if schools go wrong. But what if it catches on? What if, twenty years from now, the idea of banning kids from having best friends has stopped generating an intuition of absurdity? Then if we want kids to still be allowed to have best friends, we’re going to have to (God help us) debate it. Have you seen the way our society debates things?
And I know some people see this and say it proves rational debate is useless and we should stop worrying about it. But trusting whatever irrational forces determines what sounds absurd or not doesn’t sound so attractive either. I think about it, and I want to encourage people to be really, really good at rational debate, just in case something terrible loses its protective coating of absurdity, or something absolutely necessary gains it, and our ability to actually judge whether things are good or bad and convince other people of it is all that stands between us and disaster.
And, uh, maybe the people who say kids shouldn’t be allowed to have best friends are right. I admit they’ve thought about this a lot longer than I have. My problem isn’t that someone thinks this. It’s that so much – even the legitimacy of friendship itself – can now depend on our culture’s explicit rationality. And our culture’s explicit rationality is so bad. And that the only alternative to dragging everything before the court of explicit rationality is some version of Chesterton’s Fence, ie the very heuristic telling Oregonians to defend full-service gas stations to the death. There is no royal road.
Maybe this is a good time to get on our chronophones with Oregon (or more prosaically, use the Outside View). Figure out what cognitive strategies you would recommend to an Oregonian trying to evaluate self-service gas stations. Then try to use those same strategies yourself. And try to imagine the level of careful thinking and willingness to question the status quo it would take to make an Oregonian get the right answer here, and be skeptical of any conclusions you’ve arrived at with any less.