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Poor Oregon. Not content to be one of only two states that still ban self-service gas stations, it may soon decide to limit to two the number of automated checkout lanes in a store. That would be the practical effect of the wordily named Grocery Store Service and Community Protection Act, a proposition that 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 string of special-interest limits on shopping that have wound up in history's dustbin.

Let's begin with Oregon's controversial ban on self-service gas stations in most of the state. The prohibition has been the subject of much mockery, but when adopted in 1949, the legislation was hardly unusual. At least a dozen states, along with a number of major cities, prohibited self-service stations in whole or in part.

Looking back, it's easy to see this as interest-group legislation, but at the time the prohibitions were defended as progressive, protecting the safety of a public that might otherwise cause gasoline spills and fires.

But self-service was suddenly everywhere. Butcher shops worried about large grocery stores where the meat waited, pre-cut and pre-wrapped, for the consumer to make a choice. In 1949, after self-service meat counters became a big hit in the Chicago suburbs, unionized meat cutters organized against a proposal to allow them within the city limits.

Nowadays, we think nothing of picking painkillers and vitamins off a shelf, but once upon a time resistance to the practice was similarly stout.

Skip a generation. Consider something as simple as stepping up to an ATM to get cash. In the late 1970s, when the machines were new, local banks successfully prodded many localities to ban the use of the machines by consumers whose accounts were located in other states.

All of which is to say that the effort in Oregon to restrict automated checkout lanes falls into a common if reactionary historical pattern. We all hate it when a technological advance puts people out of jobs. Presumably there were those who hated the same trend when it gobbled up the butchers and the druggists. But in the end, shoppers still preferred to avoid the wait at the butcher counter and the pharmacy counter.

Not everyone will calculate utility the same way. The Internet abounds with calls for boycotts of automated checkout lanes. Some shoppers, in solidarity with potentially displaced workers, are refusing to use them. Those are reasonable matters of private choice.

But to limit the freedom of consumers to make up their own minds is to stand in a protectionist tradition that history has wisely discarded.

Editorial on 09/12/2019

Print Headline: The resistance to self-serve


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