Follow-up to: Full Service
Before moving on to other topics, I thought I would round out my thoughts on self/full service itself (for some good follow-up on the drugstores, see the comments of the previous post) about the History of Self-Service, which I found fit my model of such things quite well, and summarizing key findings.
The idea that there is a natural free market, and a natural fair competition, between self-service and full-service was never the real situation. Instead, the two sides competed primarily at the state legislature, with both lobbying heavily to get laws that were favorable. In the beginning, the laws favored full service, then later they were more mixed. People were required to stay by the pump, making self-service worse, but the minimum wage going up made full-service better, and so forth. Regulations got increasingly complex and many entire chains could not hack it.
The hijack problem was also even more explicit than I realized, as self-service stations undercut full-service by also cutting out other services, not just the annoying “where is my tip” windshield cleaning but more importantly water and air, and emergency assistance. Having people able to assist you when you’re in trouble on the road, or in need of key supplies, is a valuable public good, because in practice one cannot charge what such things are marginally worth or anything close to it.
Thus, Maryland’s stance that basic elements of assistance must be provided at all gas stations makes sense; you ensure good public goods and put everyone on equal footing. These requirements seem far more justifiable than building and supporting the road and interstate systems in the first place, which are massive subsidies to cars from taxpayers that advantage them hugely over other transportation such as our pitiful train system. America is built and designed around cars, and it is a conscious governmental choice. Once you mess with a market like that, it is hard to avoid messing with it further. In this case, the cost gets born by the people who use the services, in the form of a de facto tiny additional tax on gasoline, which is clearly under-taxed relative to taxation rates.