It's no shock that people with more money don't wait in line as long: they fly business class, get into private hospitals and hit the VIP queue at nightclubs. But have we gone too far in allowing "market forces" to determine how long we wait?
Picture by Gurmit Singh
In his recently published book What Money Can't Buy, author Michael Sandel discusses all kinds of examples of "fast tracking" options, from relatively harmless examples such as paying extra to avoid queues at amusement parks to more disturbing options such as people in China paying others to queue for appointment tickets to see doctors, or richer countries paying to ship their pollution overseas.
Even if you're a fervent believer in market forces above all else, there's an argument against these kinds of options in terms of pure customer service. Paying to jump to the front of an airline queue (either directly or via your ticket type) might seem to speed you up, but there's no guarantee that you won't get stuck behind the person carrying liquids, wearing boots, pockets loaded with devices and three computers — all of which can slow you up as well. And you're not going to get any sympathy when you start to complain, are you?
If you're trying to save money, these options often seem frivolous. If you're at the airport in time and have a boarding pass, you're going to get a seat, right? Personal finance aside, the bigger concern is how these options change our behaviour as a society. As Sandel notes in an excerpt published in the Guardian:
Why worry that we are moving towards a society in which everything is up for sale? For two reasons: one is about inequality; the other is about corruption. In a society where everything is for sale, life is harder for those of modest means. The more money can buy, the more affluence (or the lack of it) matters. But also, putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them. Paying children to read books might get them to read more, but it might also teach them to regard reading as a chore rather than a source of intrinsic satisfaction. Sometimes, market values crowd out nonmarket values worth caring about.
Sandel makes an interesting argument, noting research which suggests that (contrary to expectation) people who get paid for a task don't necessarily perform better than those who don't. He also notes that introducing a "pay more" option can permanently change people's behaviour, citing the well-known example of child care centres which introduce late fees for parents who don't pick up their children on time. Far from discouraging people from showing up late, those options tend to encourage it. And even after ditching the ability to pay extra for a late arrival, child care centres found that parents remained slack about being timely: "Once the monetary payment eroded the moral obligation to show up on time, the old sense of responsibility proved difficult to revive."
Hit the link for Sandel's full post, and share your thoughts on paying to not queue in the comments.
Too rich to queue? Why markets and morals don't fit [The Guardian]