Shouldn't everyone be entitled to a shorter wait for goods and services? Is it unethical to jump the line, even if you pay more? Michael J. Sandel studies these and other puzzling questions of the marketplace in "What Money Can't Buy." Here's an excerpt.
Jumping the Queue
Nobody likes to wait in line. Sometimes you can pay to jump the queue. It’s long been known that, in fancy restaurants, a handsome tip to the maître d’ can shorten the wait on a busy night. Such tips are quasi bribes and handled discreetly. No sign in the window announces immediate seating for anyone willing to slip the host a fifty-dollar bill. But in recent years, selling the right to cut in line has come out of the shadows and become a familiar practice.
Long lines at airport security checkpoints make air travel an ordeal. But not everyone has to wait in the serpentine queues. Those who buy first-class or business-class tickets can use priority lanes that take them to the front of the line for screening. British Airways calls it Fast Track, a service that also lets high-paying passengers jump the queue at passport and immigration control.
But most people can’t afford to fly first-class, so the airlines have begun offering coach passengers the chance to buy line-cutting privileges as an à la carte perk. For an extra $39, United Airlines will sell you priority boarding for your flight from Denver to Boston, along with the right to cut in line at the security checkpoint. In Britain, London’s Luton Airport offers an even more affordable fast-track option: wait in the long security line or pay £3 (about $5) and go to the head of the queue.
Critics complain that a fast track through airport security should not be for sale. Security checks, they argue, are a matter of national defense, not an amenity like extra legroom or early boarding privileges; the burden of keeping terrorists off airplanes should be shared equally by all passengers. The airlines reply that everyone is subjected to the same level of screening; only the wait varies by price. As long as everyone receives the same body scan, they maintain, a shorter wait in the security line is a convenience they should be free to sell.
Amusement parks have also started selling the right to jump the queue. Traditionally, visitors may spend hours waiting in line for the most popular rides and attractions. Now, Universal Studios Hollywood and other theme parks offer a way to avoid the wait: for about twice the price of standard admission, they’ll sell you a pass that lets you go to the head of the line. Expedited access to the Revenge of the Mummy thrill ride may be morally less freighted than privileged access to an airport security check. Still, some observers lament the practice, seeing it as corrosive of a wholesome civic habit: “Gone are the days when the theme-park queue was the great equalizer,” one commentator wrote, “where every vacationing family waited its turn in democratic fashion.”
Interestingly, amusement parks often obscure the special privileges they sell. To avoid offending ordinary customers, some parks usher their premium guests through back doors and separate gates; others provide an escort to ease the way of VIP guests as they cut in line. This need for discretion suggests that paid line cutting—even in an amusement park—tugs against a nagging sense that fairness means waiting your turn. But no such reticence appears on Universal’s online ticket site, which touts the $149 Front of Line Pass with unmistakable bluntness: “Cut to the FRONT at all rides, shows and attractions!”
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If you’re put off by queue jumping at amusement parks, you might opt instead for a traditional tourist sight, such as the Empire State Building. For $22 ($16 for children), you can ride the elevator to the eighty-sixth-floor observatory and enjoy a spectacular view of New York City. Unfortunately, the site attracts several million visitors a year, and the wait for the elevator can sometimes take hours. So the Empire State Building now offers a fast track of its own. For $45 per person, you can buy an Express Pass that lets you cut in line—for both the security check and the elevator ride. Shelling out $180 for a family of four may seem a steep price for a fast ride to the top. But as the ticketing website points out, the Express Pass is “a fantastic opportunity” to “make the most of your time in New York—and the Empire State Building—by skipping the lines and going straight to the greatest views.”
The fast-track trend can also be seen on freeways across the United States. Increasingly, commuters can buy their way out of bumper-to-bumper traffic and into a fast-moving express lane. It began during the 1980s with car pool lanes. Many states, hoping to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution, created express lanes for commuters willing to share a ride. Solo drivers caught using the car pool lanes faced hefty fines. Some put blow-up dolls in the passenger seat in hopes of fooling the highway patrol. In an episode of the television comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David comes up with an ingenious way of buying access to the car pool lane: faced with heavy freeway traffic en route to an LA Dodgers baseball game, he hires a prostitute—not to have sex but to ride in his car on the way to the stadium. Sure enough, the quick ride in the car pool lane gets him there in time for the first pitch.
Today, many commuters can do the same—without the need for hired help. For fees of up to $10 during rush hour, solo drivers can buy the right to use car pool lanes. San Diego, Minneapolis, Houston, Denver, Miami, Seattle, and San Francisco are among the cities that now sell the right to a faster commute. The toll typically varies according to the traffic—the heavier the traffic, the higher the fee. (In most places, cars with two or more occupants can still use express lanes for free.) On the Riverside Freeway, east of Los Angeles, rush-hour traffic creeps along at 15–20 miles an hour in the free lanes, while the paying customers in the express lane zip by at 60–65 mph.
Some people object to the idea of selling the right to jump the queue. They argue that the proliferation of fast-track schemes adds to the advantages of affluence and consigns the poor to the back of the line. Opponents of paid express lanes call them “Lexus lanes” and say they are unfair to commuters of modest means. Others disagree. They argue that there is nothing wrong with charging more for faster service. Federal Express charges a premium for overnight delivery. The local dry cleaner charges extra for same-day service. And yet no one complains that it’s unfair for FedEx, or the dry cleaner, to deliver your parcel or launder your shirts ahead of someone else’s.
To an economist, long lines for goods and services are wasteful and inefficient, a sign that the price system has failed to align supply and demand. Letting people pay for faster service at airports, at amusement parks, and on highways improves economic efficiency by letting people put a price on their time.
Copyright © 2012 by Michael J. Sandel. From the book "What Money Can't Buy," published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Reprinted with permission.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive