Queue and Eh?

In a recent post, I discussed Michael Sandel’s argument against applying market forces to kidney transplants. To be clear, I didn’t argue for a direct market in human organs. Rather, I suggested that market forces might solve the supply problem. A government buying program could procure the organs and distribute them according to need. Patients would still be on waiting lists, only the wait would be shorter. However, Sandel doesn’t recommend waiting lists only in this case; he argues that we should wait in line for most of our goods and services instead of purchasing them.

Sandel argues that queuing distributes goods more equitably and, thus, is morally superior to a market system which favors those with more purchasing power. Essentially, he thinks that queuing redistributes wealth better than markets. Sandel is only one of many contemporary philosophers who have weighed in recently on the ‘moral limits of markets.’ As Jason Brennan says, there’s a limitless market for books about the limits of markets. However, there are several problems with Sandel’s alternative of queuing.

1) People have different opportunity costs on their time. I’m arguably more productive now than I was when I was a student or unemployed. Back then, I had hours to spend waiting in line for free tickets to a concert or play. But now, those hours would cost me too much in productivity. In other words, it would cost me more to wait in line than it would to simply buy the tickets. Queuing favors those who produce less for the economy, which isn’t necessarily more equitable; it simply favors those with lower opportunity costs on their time.

2) In a system that favors lower productivity, there are going to be fewer goods for which to wait in line. This was precisely the problem in the former Soviet Union where people waited hours, even days, for the scarce resources that were available. In a market economy, there are plenty of goods that we can simply buy when we need them. Some would argue that there’s still scarcity because some people can’t afford to buy the same goods that others can. Granted, but markets increase the purchasing power of individuals over time. Markets have, on balance, given the poor increased economic mobility. Is there still income inequality? Sure, but income mobility is a more meaningful metric than income equality when it comes to practically addressing poverty. Income mobility allows even the poor to afford products (i.e. cell phones, portable computers) that would have been considered luxury goods in the past. The only way to make this seem like a bad thing is to point out that some people have two yachts and I have none. But I’m not sure this counts as an argument against markets.

3) Again, the motivation for Sandel’s preference for queuing over markets is his claim that queuing is more equitable. I’ve already questioned that assumption by pointing out the difference in opportunity costs. However, we could question the assumption at a more fundamental level. Sandel wants to level the playing field. His conception of a just society is a society in which everybody has access to the same things. Hence his problem with the fact that some people have greater purchasing power than others. However, does justice demand equality in that sense? Let’s imagine that we’ve completely eliminated poverty. Nobody makes less than the median income, say, $45,000 per year, but there are still people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Would such a society be unjust? I don’t think so and I’ve never seen a good argument to the contrary. The problem with Sandel, and other so-called anti-commodification theorists, is that they tend to conflate inequality and poverty/injustice, but they aren’t the same thing. I’m not even convinced Rawls makes this mistake, but many of his interpreters do.

4) Not all instances of queuing involve literally waiting in line, though several of Sandel’s examples do. In such cases, those who can afford it will simply pay somebody with more time to wait in line for them. There are several concrete examples of this. A quick Google search turns up people willing to wait in line on your behalf for a modest fee. They can save your spot at an exclusive restaurant, save you hours at Disneyland, or make sure you’re the first to get the latest iPad. Of course, Sandel is aware of such practices, and the practical problem they pose for his allegedly egalitarian queuing system. So what’s his response? He frowns upon it and that’s about all. He thinks that the service of a stand-in is just another one of those things that shouldn’t be for sale. However, moralistic finger-wagging isn’t a solution to the problem; it’s an acknowledgement of it.

Is there a moral to this story? Yes. Most academics who haven’t spent any time in the wider market economy frankly don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to economics. There’s a reason why there’s a disconnect between the ivory tower and people who work for a living and it has nothing to do with the fact that the latter aren’t bright. I think most post-academics can appreciate this. After all, many of them have leveraged the power of markets to increase their economic mobility and improve their quality of life. However, it’s often puzzled me why the economic policies they support still largely align with those of their erstwhile academic colleagues. Is it simply residual programming from their time in academia or something else? Perhaps I’ll explore that question in a subsequent post.

4 comments on “Queue and Eh?

  1. I have to start my saying that, like many others I enjoy the way that Michael Sandel makes philosophy accessible. He sort if takes away the snob factor and is, in many respects, “everyone’s philosopher.” The MOOC-like thing he did on his Harvard Justice course as well as his many appearances on Philosophy Bites were, for example, quite enjoyable; useful.
    Prof. Sandel is an admitted “communitarian” and, so, there’s no other real position he could really take without renouncing that claim. I, too, find much the same faults as do you.
    Especially #4, and I will go one step further to state that the greatest injustices I have even seen have come from communitarian/communist/big-government places where, in reality, the biggest industry becomes government. That’s where all the pushy greedy folk then go to do their dirty work and they become quite good at the rhetoric that tries to explain how their greedy selfish actions are, in fact, in the public’s interest. The queue would, in the end, become something that people would just drive underground in order to get to the head of it. Bribes, bullying and the like would soon replace money.
    As for the kidney problem, I am convinced that unless we figure out a better way–growing replacements from stem cells maybe–we’l still remain in this awkward ethical dilema with no clear actions. As for me, the choice I would have to take is that we need a two tier system–a (1) queue for most and and a (2) way for those with the means to do it on their own.

    • danielmullin81 says:

      Yes, Sandel is easily the most articulate philosopher who makes these arguments. I suppose by picking on his book, I’m paying him a backhanded compliment. I pretty much agree with your assessment that bullying and bribes would emerge in the absence of markets. There’s always going to be something that functions as currency. Even in Sandel’s system, the currency is time. Market solutions aren’t always ideal, but they’re the best — or the least bad — system we’ve got.

      • Larry says:

        “bullying and bribes would emerge”

        Wadda ya mean by “would”? They coexist with money, IMHO.

      • danielmullin81 says:

        I mean they would completely replace a system of relatively fair exchange. Basically, driving markets underground makes any undesirable aspect of them much, much worse.

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