Last summer, my youngest daughter and I huddled in the shade to find relief from Florida’s heat while waiting in a crowded line for a roller coaster. Next to us, separated by thick orange rope, was an empty lane for the “express pass” ticket holders — those who paid more than a 100% markup for the privilege of no lines for rides. Business Class for theme parks.
Despite the shade, I lost my cool, but no one else around me seemed fazed by the orange line at all. The ability to buy the rights to the front of the line seems normal to us now. We see it everywhere from the add-on airline fee that lets us board the plane earlier to the new High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes on Los Angeles’ 110 freeway. To economists, paying extra for privileges is an efficient way to distribute scarce goods based on the assumption that people are willing to pay for what they value. Unfortunately for the rest of us, these “Pay-for-Privilege” arrangements end up costing us far more than admission to a theme park.
If there was just one line for the ride, then it would have been ruled by the ethic of the queue, otherwise known as “wait your turn.” Here, what you want is doled out on a first come, first serve basis. The ethic of the queue is why my child feels compelled to scold classmates who cut in front of her in the lunch line. We all have to learn to wait our turn, because we are essentially the same. We are equal to each other.
The point of Pay-for-Privilege and the orange line is to establish an inequality. Defenders of the orange line will claim that paying for privileges is fair because the line doesn’t discriminate. Prices, they say, are neutral with respect to one’s race, gender, age, sexual orientation, etc. But neutral is not the same as equal.
Imagine applying the Pay-for-Privilege model in a school cafeteria – a special lane for students who, because they paid twice as much for their meal, are served sooner than the children paying the standard lunch fee. Are the children in the express pass lane simply hungrier than the other children, so much so that they want to pay extra for a quick meal? Maybe. But what if the same kids are in the express lane every day? How would you feel seeing the same kids jumping to the front of the line every day while you have to wait your turn? How does it shape your understanding of your value in the world in relationship to others? How does it shape their view of you?
Prices do more than just distribute goods and services; they also structure our relationships to each other. The Pay-for-Privilege model reinforces unequal relationships based on money and the other powers money buys. While this may be profitable for companies, Pay-for-Privilege is in conflict with a democracy built upon the ideal that we are all created equal. Not neutral, but equal.
I’m not advocating that we do away with prices altogether and just stand in line for everything. The orange line is a way to grab for more profits in a way that actually robs us of an opportunity to practice treating each other as equals by making everyone stand in the same line. After all, we’ve already paid the admission price. Businesses may not care what impact their pricing strategies have on cultural norms, or they may believe that express pass lines are inconsequential to equality and democracy, but they are wrong. The erosion of values doesn’t take place in one sudden event; it happens gradually over time, in increments too small to mind because we don’t pay it enough mind to begin with.
Standing in line builds patience and compassion, and the value of practicing patience and compassion will be evident when there is more at stake. I’d rather stand in one line where we can cultivate values that support equality than in two lines where “Pay-for-Privilege” divides those of us standing on either side of that bright orange line.