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Queuing for the Queen and the Moral Limits of Markets

photograph of queue in front of Buckingham Palace

In the days before her funeral last week, more than 250,000 former subjects joined the 10-mile queue (line) to see Queen Elizabeth II lying-in-state in Westminster Hall. Some queued for 24 hours. Many slept on the street. More than 400 fainted. All this led The Economist to ask, “is queuing the best way to do things?” The problem, the magazine claims, is how to allocate scarce resources (limited slots to walk by the coffin). “An ideal system,” they write, “would give spots to those who value them the most.”

The free-for-all queue falls short by this metric. Why? It “effectively rations out the spots to those who turn up first—and who are willing to wait.” In other words, it allocates the scarce resource to those with more time, rather than those who value it the most. A devoted royalist with an inflexible job to go to is less likely to see the Queen than a tourist who feels like taking part in the experience. It also led to a lot of wasted time that could be better used. This is, in economic terms, an inefficient system.

So what other options are there, besides the mega-queue? The Economist article suggests a couple, including “some kind of market, with prices for each time slot set high enough to balance supply and demand.” They note that there is some precedence: “To visit Buckingham Palace,” for example, “one must buy a ticket.” Now, this system would also, admittedly, have disadvantages. It obviously benefits those with more ability to pay. And those who can pay most aren’t necessarily the same people who would value the experience most. In any case, the reporter’s suggestion of market allocation of tickets went down pretty poorly in the queue. Of course, there may be a selection effect at play. You wouldn’t expect to find people who dislike the queue system in a 10-mile queue.

But I think there are some reasons besides economic inefficiency to think that a market-based allocation would be a bad idea. “Suppose, on your wedding day,” writes the philosopher Michael Sandel, “your best man delivers a heartwarming toast, a speech so moving it brings tears to your eyes. You later learn that he bought it online. Would you care? Would the toast mean less than it did at first, before you knew it was written by a paid professional? For most of us, it probably would.” For some goods, their being bought or sold seems to affect their value to us.

Or take gifts. Economists have long railed against the economic inefficiency of gift-giving. In Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays, economist Joel Waldfogel writes:

The bottom line is that when other people do our shopping, for clothes or music or whatever, it’s pretty unlikely that they’ll choose as well as we would have chosen for ourselves… Relative to how much satisfaction their expenditures could have given us, their choices destroy value.

Waldfogel acknowledges that cash is generally seen as a bad gift. But why is it? Are we simply being irrational, or is the narrow economic lens of analysis missing something important about gift-giving? Sandel suspects the latter. “Gifts aren’t only about utility,” he writes. “Some gifts are expressive of relationships that engage, challenge, and reinterpret our identities.” In other words, going out and choosing a gift that you think will be meaningful to the recipient says something about how you understand them. It can also say something about your relationship.

A scene from Seinfeld illustrates Sandel’s point. Jerry, not knowing where his relationship stands with Elaine now that they are sleeping together but not in a relationship, is struggling to choose a birthday present that sends the appropriate message. A music box is “too relationshippy,” candleholders “too romantic,” lingerie “too sexual,” waffle-maker “too domestic.” Jerry’s ultimate choice is revealed as Elaine opens her present.

Elaine: Cash?!

Jerry: What do you think?

Elaine: You got me cash?!

Jerry: Well this way I figured you could go out and get yourself whatever you want. No good?

Elaine: What are you, my uncle?

Elaine’s complaint is that the gift fails to reflect what is meaningful in their relationship. It may be economically efficient, as Jerry protests, but it is impersonal — something a distant relative would give. Despite the efficiency of cash as a gift, it has less value to her.

There is a similar case to be made for the rituals surrounding death, and, in the case of the British monarchy, political rituals. We may not always want the most efficient, market-based solution. Introducing market norms to some areas of life seems to devalue the very things we find precious and meaningful. So what, to put it in Sandel’s terms, does the inefficient queue “express?” How does it “engage” or “reinterpret” our identities?

In a deeply wealth-divided society (and perhaps somewhat ironically for a monarchical event) a queue, open to all and free for all, embodies a sense of moral equality. Theoretically, everybody has twenty-four hours in a day, even if practically, the demands on that time vary greatly from person to person. The queue does a better job of expressing this equality, the sense that we’re all in this together, than a system of paid time slots, even if it does benefit the time-rich.

Part of what many found moving about the queue was the degree of personal sacrifice it involved, of both time and comfort. Of course, a market-based system would also involve sacrifice — the money for the tickets. But spending money communicates less personal investment than spending one’s time, or enduring discomfort. Perhaps this communicates something: respect for the Queen, for the dead, or simply the historical significance of the moment.

Finally, we also can’t ignore that there is something very British about this way of mourning a monarch. Stephen Reicher, a social psychologist, writes in The Guardian that:

Time and again, queues, and this one in particular, have been described as quintessentially and uniquely British: polite, restrained and orderly, reflecting the timeless characteristics of our national identity. 

For a nation just stripped of its most powerful symbol of continuity, the longest-reigning monarch in British history, perhaps the familiar inefficiency of a long queue is precisely what we needed.

Under Discussion: The Marginalization of the Future

photograph of human shadow stretching out over dry lakebed

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: Combating Climate Change.

Predictive models projecting the course of global temperature rise and general climate change have been largely accurate. As the anticipated effects have become clearly manifest in weather effects, governments, businesses, and individuals have begun to consider the grim future that awaits. And yet across the world, especially in the United States, many people continue to deny that human action is responsible for climate change. Or, even where people acknowledge the reality of climate change, they do not deign to take action. Frequently this inaction stems from a conflict between the scope of the needed action, and a belief in individualist and free-market ethics.

Proponents of free-market views on economics and ethics argue that what is most efficient or most ethical, respectively, is to allow individuals to negotiate one-on-one exchanges in accordance with their preferences. This is the rationale behind at-will and right-to-work employment laws and the repeal of the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act, among other things. Anathema to a free market is centrally-coordinated action from strong governments or monopolistic corporations. This is where the reticence of even those who recognize the looming danger of climate change enters. They disagree that either massively and centrally-coordinated actions are necessary or that such action, even if in some sense pressing, is not politically or ethically acceptable.

Why not? What could be unacceptable about massive and centrally-coordinated action? The idea is that such action necessarily tramples on individual preferences. If most individuals want to act on climate change, then they will make deals in the market to affect that change and top-down institutional action will be superfluous and risk creating a tyranny that outlasts the current emergency.

What can easily evade our attention here is what does not get mentioned: nothing is said about the people and creatures that will inherit the world as shaped by our choices. People who do not yet exist do not have preferences and so the free market had no direct mechanism to factor in their interests. This difficulty is highlighted by a constellation of issues known as the non-identity problem, future individual paradox, or intergenerational justice. (Note: intergenerational justice also covers the rights and interests of past and deceased persons.)

The marginalization of future persons within a free-market decision-making structure is a deep-seated, structural problem. A free-market exchange assumes that interested individuals are directly interacting to advocate for their preferences or interacting through an agent who will do so. And future persons are not the only entities marginalized in this way: any lifeforms that cannot secure meaningful advocacy for themselves are effectively marginalized. The forms of racism, misogyny, and other invidious bigotry with which we are all too familiar also operated (partially) through this mechanism. Whereas future persons do not exist to advocate for themselves, oppressed groups have been — and are — deliberately prevented from such advocacy. Like future persons, non-human animals and the inanimate environment are, by the nature of their existence, incapable of advocating for themselves.

But don’t people with the ability to advocate for marginalized entities do so? Can’t that solve the problem? In short, no. In the case of currently existing human beings, there has proven to be no substitute for self-advocacy or advocacy through others who share a meaningfully similar perspective. Hence the importance of historic firsts in political representation, like Kamala HarrisRaphael WarnockDeb HaalandIlhan OmarSarah McBrideRashida Tlaib, and Jon Ossof. However, there is no way to extend the power of political participation to animals, the environment, or future persons.

While there is rhetoric to the effect that we must consider how our actions will affect the world inherited by those that come after us, its reach is often limited and the motivations behind it sometimes suspect. Deficit hawks in U.S. politics wring their hands and rend their garments about the debt we are foisting on our children and grandchildren as a way to avoid spending money on current problems that aren’t in line with their preferences. Many young people are concerned for the world that they will have to live in imminently and seethe at the injustice of having to clean up the mess made by their predecessors. This latter concern is not illegitimate — it simply isn’t the same as concern for people who do not yet exist.

The Socialist Calculation Debate: Revisited

Photo of Karl Marx bust on a plinth in a small park

The socialist calculation debate preoccupied some of our finest economic thinkers in the first half of the 1900s. The debate revolved around how to best solve society’s resource allocation problem—as in, how do we best allocate society’s scarce resources? In the attempt to answer the question, two camps emerged: the right-wing free-marketers and the left-wing socialists. The right’s answer to the allocation problem was a decentralized pricing system, whereas the left’s answer was a centrally planned economy. While on some level this debate died with the 20th century, glimmers of its return can be seen today. Continue reading “The Socialist Calculation Debate: Revisited”

Price Gouging: Noble Virtue or Necessary Evil?

A row of multicolored gasoline tank nozzles

Hurricane Harvey has barely receded in Texas. Irma has devastated parts of Florida. Jose is on deck. Katia has already hit Mexico. Lee never really got going, but Maria is building strength. If we survive, this season promises us a hurricane Ophelia. It’s a good year for inland weather buffs, and for people selling emergency supplies.  

Continue reading “Price Gouging: Noble Virtue or Necessary Evil?”

Betsy DeVos and the Changing Face of Public Education

Betsy DeVos’ controversial nomination to the Secretary of Education position has left many folks on both sides of the aisle wondering where exactly the future of our schools lie. DeVos, a staunch believer in school choice, is hoping to fix the public school system in the United States by forcing schools to compete with each other. Critics were appalled when DeVos “called traditional public schools a ‘dead end,’” leading them to launch a hashtag on social media, #publicschoolproud, to show that public schools are still making an impact on the lives of them and their children.

Continue reading “Betsy DeVos and the Changing Face of Public Education”