Why Paying To Skip The Queue Is Unfair

Why Paying To Skip The Queue Is Unfair

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]


  • Actually, at the airport, having a boarding pass does not guarantee you overhead locker space. “Your primary storage is under the seat in front of you”

    Getting onto the plane first can be the difference between walking off the plane comfortably, and coming away with deep vein thrombosis.

  • Awesome article. It really makes you think, regardless of where you stand in regards to ecomoic ideology, as to where to draw the “line” (Geddit?) on market determination. Thanks Angus!

  • Meh.. I always wait for everyone to enter the plane first, hopefully be the last person on, meaning more time laid out on relatively comfy gate chairs rather than sardined.

    I say let em pay.. means I may pay less for a small amount of time.

  • “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.”

    ^ So even positive reinforcement is bad now? How DO we get kids to do stuff?

    • Teaching kids to value money more than books is the problem. Perhaps they should be rewarded for making money in their paper round by being allowed to read a decent book?

      (Using money to reward kids is no more than a symptom of the parents’ own intellectual and moral poverty).

    • Make it fun! When my father would read to me all those years ago, he’d change the story around. I remember him reading me a story about a hungry chick, and instead of eating breadcrumbs, he ordered pizza hut. That taught me that reading wasn’t a chore, but something I could make fun with my imagination.

      Of course I haven’t read a book in a while, but I do read plenty of articles online that whisk me away like a book can.

      • I don’t get away with the any more, I only started doing that now my son is five, and he calls me on it every time.

        ‘Daddy, the big bad wooff is not C4!!!” (Apparently the Big Bad Wolf can’t be a messed up ex-commando with an excellent knowledge of explosives)

        or when I read stories really, REALLY fast.


        He is such a party pooper.

    • Paying people is one of the worst ways to reinforce behavior because its a fairly delayed gratification. Reading becomes this thing you do for money, so they won’t do it in the absence of money. There is a lot of research on this/

  • While I agree with the article, the airport example probably isn’t best fit to the argument as generally it’s frequency of use rather than money that makes the various loyalty programs appealing. I travel frequently on planes as a part of my job so being able to make better use of my time is a higher consideration to someone on holidays who may not fly as frequently.

  • I dont see the point of jumping the queue on planes, for one the plane wont leave without you in it. those who paid extra to get in first will end up having to wait the longest sitting down while the rest of the passengers take their merry time.

    • @ mork, a plane will leave without you in it. Absolutely it will.

      One of an airline’s main concerns is OTP, on-time performance. Not only does a late departure annoy pax but an aircraft on the ground longer than planned can cost the airlines thousands in fees from the airport (at both ends of the flight)
      I believe charging for priority check-in is much more about encouraging the majority of pax to arrive early and get the advantages of the fee without paying it.

      • I think the scenario mork is talking about is at that moment where everyone is at the gate waiting to board the plane. I agree with mork in that instance though. I don’t rush to get on the plane as it isn’t going anywhere and your seat is already assigned. I don’t understand the insanity of boarding a plane, but I do understand the insanity of getting off the plane. Especially if you have to go through customs of a foreign country… lines can get so long.
        I remember flying easyjet in london to berlin and they had priority boarding. I think you weren’t assigned seats too, which may be the main factor of why they have a priority boarding on those flights.

        • Apologies people, I have been involved in taking pax off flights in a previous job at the airport and this subject touches a nerve. Agreed, being in the long queue with everyone else is not the nicest thing but it’s really not that bad. Making a fast getaway is awesome though. How about a fee for preferential disembarkation?
          @Bernie, having taken bags off flights myself, yes that is the main reason for taking off the bags and yes it is a painbut an airline will not hesitate to do so if it is nearly departure time.

      • @66biscuits. It won’t leave without you in any hurry if you’ve already checked your bags in. They won’t let the plane take off without first removing your baggage, and that’s no easy thing to do. They’d have to check ALL the bags just to find yours. This is based on the concept that you might have placed a bomb in your luggage whereas the chances are higher that you didn’t if you get on the plane with it.

  • Paying to skip the queue is NOT unfair.

    Do you trade your time for money? Most do.
    Can money be, in addition to a store of value, a store of and substitute for time? Yes.
    So, what’s the issue here?

    “Once the monetary payment eroded the moral obligation…” how is this a topic a question of morals?
    The moral notion of paying in order to get something better is defunct. Is watching a movie in GoldClass less moral than a regular ticket? Is driving a car worth $1,000 more than the one next to you in traffic less moral? If I am sick, and I have the money to receive treatment now instead of waiting on a list, is this immoral? Is it immoral to charge $4 for a loaf of bread at a service station when they are $3 everywhere else?

    It’s a bullsh*t argument to introduce morality into a dynamic where people are self interested and able to advance their self interest in accordance with the rules available to everyone within that dynamic. It’s not those who are in the dynamic who are playing a moral game, its the people who control the dynamic, the ones receiving payment and delivering preferential treatment. In a free market, everything is a commodity, even reducing wait times.

    If anyone wants to cry about being poor or hard up or doing it tough, that’s their right. Go get a tshirt with ‘waaa – the world owes me’ on it so I can see you coming and stay away.

    Remember, IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT, OPT OUT. Go feral and live in the bush. I’ll be chillin’ in the Qantas Club sipping my wine and nibbling my cheese, and then strolling right up and onto the plane and be seated while you wait like a sheep in a pen for the shepherd to let you on.

    Some people pay for their own jets, with no other people on them, surrounded by empty seats, no waiting at all. Is this immoral? I read Sandel’s excerpt via the link. Drivel. I’d have thought that someone who could write a book on this topic could have addressed the greater more challenging moral problem of globalization and the disparate divide between the consumer and the factory worker – oh wait, that’s what Marx wrote about, nothing new, he died in 1883.

    Markets and morals fit just fine, markets enable a massive amount of good to be done for no return, and even in the case where there is a return, that doesn’t erode the good which has been done.

    I’m going to stop before I start quoting Rand.

    • sounds to me like the moral obligation was for the parents to pick the kids up on time thus allowing the staff to go home and do what they please Giving this moral dilemma a monetary value may make a person feel that they are just paying for extra time. ( I work with kids a lot and people think we are baby sitters, we are not and you are just making us late for the next family/kid/group) what if the staff just left when ther time was up? leaving all the kids outside to wait for parents? imagine the outrage

      • @Az. Your reply isn’t quite on target. What you discuss is a relevant issue, but isn’t really what Kendal was suggesting. And also, I could state that your issue is dealing with people who don’t have money (or time), which is quite the opposite of what Kendal was talking about. Someone with money would use an aupair to look after the kids.

    • Don’t stop. Answer this one. You have cancer Kendal. Your going to die…. wait! the cure is chemo – just hop in the queue and your going to live. Woops mate, you have queue jumpers that have more money than you. Bad luck son – better start digging.
      Is it moral that the less fortunate have to die because of market forces?

      • @Rollz – Yes, I expect that if someone else can afford treatment before me, that they will live and I will die. Being ‘less fortunate’ in this case means having less money, and dying as a result. If a person can pay to be advanced in the queue, then it’s not queue jumping.

        ‘Fitness’ (in terms of survival of the fittest) varies in definition from species to species, in ours, it’s influence, and money buys that. Some people have influence in a case like this because they know a doctor. Some people have influence because they are a head of state. Some people are advantaged because they are kids in cases of potentially fatal illnesses. Is it fair that a kid get chemo before an adult, or that the Prime Minister’s life is treated with greater care than any other citizen?

        If someone has more influence (money), they are more likely to survive in cases like this one. Even if it’s the slightest advantage, it can mean your agenda is met while the other guy dies. I have no problem with this, because this is the reality in which we live. It is what it is.

        The reason why this goes on is because everyone complies, that is, everyone goes along with it. Saying you don’t agree with it but getting in a big line of traffic tomorrow morning while someone flies past in the transit lane is hypocrisy.

        If you want an advantage, take it. If there isn’t one to be taken, make one. Order at the window and then park and take your meal inside to beat the queue. Car pool. Get an ABN to reduce tax. GAME THE SYSTEM. Don’t think of the rules as limitations, make the most of it within them, there’s plenty of room for improvisation.

        And yes, people die because they’re born in the wrong place or time or economic circumstance, and some people who are born in the same place time and circumstances make it in a big way. ‘Fairness’ and ‘morality’ are two separate things. Life is not fair, does that make life immoral? Everyone hates the corporations that ‘enslave’ people from the third world, and then hand over fists full of cash to slurp up the latest gadgets. Not me, I love my gadgets, I’m glad those companies produced them in the way they did, so that I can have what I have. You can’t escape it. Your life already depends on it, every day you have the advantage, already, the ‘chemo’ example plays itself out in your life every day. You are the beneficiary of market forces, you’re not reading this in hard copy, you’re not scavenging for food in the rubbish or making widgets in a mega-factory on an 10 hour rotating roster. That anyone in the west can preach that ‘fairness is moral’ is a huge crock of shit. It is unfairness which sustains our lives. If the electricity went out for a month, the world as we know it would end. We’re in an iron lung powered by the exploitation and oppression of others, and we’d die without it. But does that mean our lives immoral? I don’t think so.

        People should look at reality and what they do, not what they ‘feel’ because altruism without action makes me want to puke. Get off your soap box and have a look around at the real world. You don’t like that the world is unfair, yet you enjoy the fruits of exploitation every day. You’re like someone that likes steak but hates the idea of a cow dying, and would never butcher an animal themselves.

        So, if I die because I can’t afford to live, or can’t afford to be at the front of the queue, then that’s my fault, I have failed myself, I could have made more money and been at the top of the list, but I didn’t, and so I die. The circumstances are fair because they are the same for everyone, and perfectly moral because everyone knows the rules and is observing them.

        • Wew! Quite a rant, I respect your passion. You began to get quite rabid towards the end there and lost it,
          Point one – don’t compare our culture with others – the morals differ, keep it simple.
          Point two – Your searching for loopholes in our system and yes, found them. That point indicates the “immorality” of our culture, not the morality. That is what it is but certainly not what the majority would regard as moral. Queue jumping is acknowleged but thankfully not regarded as moral.
          We have a “society” thanks to evolution of for the most part, group decisions. You have failed because of the failure to make your choice accepted.
          So we can fix your immoral choices by closing the loopholes you exploit, or go the other way and make it a free for all, which will not happen.
          Why? Your world view and immorality (as it opposes majority view) is an evolutionary tyre spike. Your advocacy of nihilism is essentially a simple organism or bacterial existence.
          Luckily most of us reject your view and attempt to make society fairer and over time the immoral will be weeded out – you,
          Remember, everyone knows the rules its just some are NOT observing them

  • Those child care centers should just leave the kids to their own devices if the parents are late. No responsibility if you run late without a valid reason!

  • I think the Airline metaphor is a little off target in this topic. When I fly business, I never, ever jump the queue. I arrive at the airport later and never try to get on the plane early. If traffic is good (rare) and I arrive early, then I’ll go to the first class lounge, grab a drink and do some more work.

  • It happens with refugees too – those who can afford to organise an illegal boat ride to Australia are jumping in ahead of those who can’t

  • @Rollz – Don’t presume to comment on how I argue or make my point when I answer your question. You asked me a question, “Is it moral that the less fortunate have to die because of market forces?” and I answered it.

    Yes. Because my morality is not altruistic, I am an Objectivist (look it up). I am not a nihilist, I believe our lives have an aim, (each individual achieving their own happiness and rational self-interest) but this contradicts yours.

    You deem this (death of the less fortunate due to market forces) to be immoral, because it is ‘unfair.’ Your morality is based on altruism. You are a Socialist. You believe our life aim is to give up individual happiness for the betterment of others, and that this should be done forcibly if the individual refuses to comply. (Those who know that they cannot win by means of logic, have and always will resorted to force.)

    If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that has to be rejected. I denounce altruism.

    Where there’s sacrifice, there’s always someone collecting sacrificial offerings. Where there’s service, there’s someone being served. The one who speaks of sacrifice (altruism), speaks of slaves and masters, and intends to be the latter.

    I’m not interested in your shining socialist future, because it comes knocking the door as a polite looter, a well mannered thief, looking to take in the name of what is ‘good.’ It takes away individual rights, and robs us of what (as an Objectivist) I believe our life’s aim is, to achieve individual happiness and rational self-interest.

    And don’t jump to the conclusion that my happiness has to come at the cost of someone else. The moral cannibalism of all hedonist and altruist doctrines lies in the premise that the happiness of one man necessitates the injury of another. I can achieve my happiness at no cost to others.

    You can’t say the same about your morality, because it demands a toll on others.

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