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April 15, 2019 by Dr. Varner in Policy

Doctors and New Jersey gas pumps have more in common than you might think. That already sounds crazy, right?

Well, it’s not so crazy when we take into account that practicing medicine in America, much like pumping gasoline in New Jersey and Oregon, is heavily restricted so that only specific group of people with the government’s permission are allowed to do it.

Oregon and New Jersey are the only states in the union where it’s basically illegal to pump your own gas. If you live literally anywhere else in the USA, this sounds absurd. Creating jobs by legal decree is counterproductive, it raises the price of gasoline and essentially forces you to purchase a service you may not want.

There have been strong grassroots efforts to liberalize gas station laws in Oregon that made it all the way to the state legislature. Believe it or not, a lot of Oregonians are pushing back against gas station reforms.

To paraphrase a report from Reason, when a South Oregon news station asked local residents their opinion of the reforms, people chimed in with everything from, “I don’t know how to pump my own gas” to “I don’t feel comfortable getting outside my car while there are transients around.”

Meanwhile, other residents are more comfortable being within a football field’s distance from a stranger. They’re more concerned about a real safety issue, like people who frequently drive at night not wanting to sit there by themselves at three in the morning waiting for someone to come out and pump their gas.

Okay, so what does this have to do with medicine?

Medicine is possibly the most restricted profession in the United States, and for the same two reasons as gas pumps in Oregon and New Jersey:

1) Interest groups

People who pump gas realize they’d be out of a job if people could do it themselves. Similarly, doctors realize if you could buy more medications over the counter, you’d purchase their services less frequently. They realize that if it were easier to become a doctor, there would be more doctors in the market and wages would be lower. It’s the same problem: benefits concentrated to a few people, and costs distributed to everyone.

2)  Status-quo bias

People have this fear that if regulations are repealed, bad things will happen. Defending the status quo is built into our DNA. So when proposals to liberalize medical regulations get debated, it is very easy for the interest group that benefits to trigger the general public’s status quo bias.

Gas station attendants in NJ and OR have the same advantage. That’s why KVAL News in Eugene, Oregon, reports people’s serious concerns that repealing the legal requirement for gas pump attendants will screw over the disabled, senior citizens, and people with small children in the car. All of these fears persist despite the fact that 95 percent of the country’s population pumps their own gas without the doom that Oregonians seem to fear.

And like several massive healthcare reform efforts over the last few decades, Oregon’s gas pump reforms are weak and basically ineffective. When voters started mobilizing and demanding to be allowed to pump their own gas, the legislature’s response was to legalize pumping your own gas only in rural counties with populations of less than 40,000 people, and only between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. when most pump attendants in those areas are likely to be off duty.

That’s basically a useless reform meant to tackle one symptom, and not even in a way that’s meaningful to most of the state’s residents. Compare that with every Medicare overhaul and insurance reform bill in the US during the last 30 years, and how despite the promises to help people and eliminate old problems, we still have record numbers of uninsured patients, and people with crippling medical debt.

And like the gasoline lobby in Oregon and New Jersey, the medical lobby will find every reason in the book for why people will get hurt, die, or spontaneously combust if the government moves to deregulate the specific conditions of scarcity that guarantee their jobs. They tell the public that freedom is bad when the real reason is that freedom is bad for special interests.

The truth is that nothing bad will happen when people are given more freedom. Whether that’s the freedom to pump your own gas, pick your own medications or choose a doctor with training that is acceptable to you. Bad things happen anyway, even with laws in place. Murder, assault, drunk driving, robbery, and other kinds of theft or fraud happen every day despite laws against all of those things. Repealing gas station laws won’t bring on the apocalypse.

It’s time to ditch the status quo bias and recognize that regulation benefits a few people at the expense of everyone else –it doesn’t keep gas stations in Oregon safe, and it doesn’t keep American patients safe either.

This information is intended to help readers be more informed about their health options when speaking with a professional, but it should not be used alone to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure any disease or condition. Be sure to speak to a qualified doctor before taking any action to make sure that your choices reflect your actual health situation.

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