Saving our queuemunity

A queue may reflect society at large, but does paying more money gives the right to jump the line?

Voters in many low-income communities have been forced to wait for hours to cast their votes while polling places in affluent suburbs remained queue-free during the US presidential elections [AFP]

As markets intrude into every corner of our lives, and as they collide with rising economic inequality, an unfair world is becoming even less fair. However, in the market economy’s war of all-against-all, there are occasional ceasefires – and most of those require us to queue up. 

The queue is one of the most common forms of rationing. When standing in line – either physically or virtually – we are still not quite equals, but we do adhere to customs that confer no explicit advantage on those who are richer or tougher or more selfish. Writing recently in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Matthew Malady argued that while no one really enjoys queues, they are far from being “a persistent social nuisance”; rather, they “can function as society’s great equaliser” and are “one of our most noble collective achievements”.   

When queues are connected with a special occasion – an all-night wait to get first crack at Apple’s latest digital wonder, say, or when a country, like Tunisia in 2011, is holding its first free elections ever, or when 2km-long lines of worshippers at India’s temples on auspicious days – the long wait can even become an integral part of the excitement. 

But too often, queues reflect the deep injustices that pervade our economies. Late in the day at a Cairo bakery, for example, it is customers that have worked long hours and cannot afford home delivery who find themselves standing in extra-long bread queues. And in the past three US presidential elections, voters in many low-income communities have been forced to wait for hours to cast their votes while polling places in affluent suburbs remained queue-free. 

Some of our deepest thinking about how to organise a queue fairly has gone into development of waiting lists for organ transplants; however, it has proven difficult to come up with rules that are fair to all. The US transplant system, for example, was ripped by controversy recently when 10-year-old Sarah Murnaghan was seen by some as jumping the queue when her family argued successfully in court that she should receive an adult lung.       

Queue-jumping, at a price 

When we wait in line, we are paying a kind of surcharge – in inconvenience, and in time that we could be using for some better purpose. Economists regard that cost as falling more heavily on the affluent, because a minute spent standing in line by, say, a CEO is seen as having higher value than a minute spent in line by the person who mows the CEO’s lawn. Market doctrine dictates that to eliminate such costs, the price of whatever people are queuing up for should keep rising until the dwindling number of people who can still afford it falls in line with the supply.

When simple price-raising is seen as highly unfair or impractical, there are more subtle ways in which market logic can be applied to queues, and formerly fair allocation systems are becoming riddled with such loopholes. In his article, Malady lamented the many ways in which schemes that allow queue-jumping for a price are undermining the fairness of queuing at airport gates, in theme parks, on ski slopes and in many other situations. 

We have become accustomed to letting higher-paying air passengers be first in line at check-in or the gate. But we are sure to see a lot more resentment as paying to jump becomes increasingly common in that most hated queue of all: the one for airport security screening. The US Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) is now allowing some passengers to pass through a separate, short queue, without having to take off their shoes, light jackets, or belts or remove computers or liquids from their bags. Elite frequent fliers identified by the airlines themselves or those who participate in a federal “trusted traveller” programme such as Global Entry can qualify, but either route to the expedited queue comes at significant expense. 

In no human society studied under controlled experimental conditions have people on average behaved as predicted by the standard economic model.

by Yochai Benkler , Harvard Law School

That is not right. We all must endure screening even though there is only an infinitesimal chance that any given individual, whether in elite queue or the regular one, is looking to cause trouble. And every passenger’s ticket price includes a flat fee that helps keep TSA going. Giving preferential treatment to a few lucky passengers subverts that whole system. 

‘May I?’ 

Queuing up is not a longstanding tradition in much of the world. In its attempts to change that reality, China has designated the 11th day of each month as “Queuing Day” (with the number 11 symbolising two people, one standing behind the other). Queuing Day started as part of the country’s efforts to put its best foot forward during the Beijing Olympics. In the years since, the campaign has been modestly effective in promoting queuing throughout the year, not just for one day per month. While in China, in 2008, to cover the Olympics, the BBC’s James Reynolds decided to gauge the degree of success by trying to penetrate a subway queue. He recounted one such attempt: 

“‘Can I go in front of you?’ I asked one man.

‘Why?’ he asked.

‘Because I just want to get ahead.’

‘That would be meaningless,’ he replied. And he held his ground.” 

The request to queue-jump was meaningless, presumably, because Reynolds failed to give a good enough reason. But queues are often reshuffled when there is an acceptable rationale for doing so. An obvious example is the hospital emergency room, where, through triage, more urgent cases leapfrog over less urgent ones. Given the circumstances, surveys of patients find a high tolerance for emergency room waiting. 

Queues are social systems with their own norms and adaptations. While gratuitous queue-jumping is almost always a no-no, people often do accommodate those who provide a good reason for asking to cut ahead. The most common requests to jump involve urgency (“my flight is about to leave”) or a light demand on the person serving (“I just have these two items”). Norms that allow queue-jumping for reasons like those not only make for a more congenial experience than does strict adherence to the first-come-first-serve doctrine; in some cases, they also can be more efficient and fair. The same result can be achieved by having a separate queue for those with urgent needs or requiring only brief service, as in the “12 items or fewer” checkout lane.     

In contrast, the “pay up or queue up” systems that are becoming increasingly common in our society are widely viewed as unjust. For example, a survey of British emergency room patients asked about “the hypothetical notion of paying to be seen more quickly”, and the prospect was generally unacceptable: “All interviewees raised the issue of equity; that it would be unfair on those who could not afford to pay.” On the other hand, many of the same respondents who objected in principle to a payment system also said that if they had a serious complaint and were suffering pain, they would be willing to pay to move up the queue – if it did not cost too much! 

Our views on paying to jump are complicated, to say the least. In an experiment conducted in Philadelphia, researchers approached 500 people, each of whom was standing near the front of one of four queues – in a cafeteria, a food court, a train station and a Department of Motor Vehicles service centre – and in each case simply asked, “Can I go in front of you?” If the subject asked for a reason, the experimenter said only, “I would like to pay faster”. In 100 cases, experimenters offered nothing; in other cases, they offered to pay either $1, $3, $5 or $10 to be allowed to break into the line. 

Sure enough, the more money the experimenters offered, the more likely they were to be allowed to jump the queue. However – and this is the interesting part – of the 266 people who were offered money and did let the experimenters slip into the queue, 225 refused to accept the cash. Most subjects apparently shared the general view that one’s place in line should not be sold, but they interpreted the amount of money being offered as a measure of need or urgency and responded accordingly. 

In the markets found in textbooks, every participant is highly knowledgeable, behaves completely rational and acts only out of self-interest, while there are no overwhelming disparities in economic power. But in queues and elsewhere, those assumptions just do not hold. Indeed, in the words of Yochai Benkler of Harvard Law School, “In no human society studied under controlled experimental conditions have people on average behaved as predicted by the standard economic model.” 

Within the queue’s social system in particular, we tend to be our real selves, not textbook characters. And when we are waiting together, we can almost always work out things among ourselves. Demands to pay up or queue up do not help. They just get in the way. 

Stan Cox is a senior scientist at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. His latest book is Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing, published by The New Press.