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The price of waiting
On the balance between letting prices do their magic and making sure the right people have incentives to push for better government
Here's an idea that sounds great on the surface: "Every line - traffic, the fair, carpool, whatever - should be monetized. Let those who value time (as one should) pay accordingly!" Its author, Scott Lincicome, holds strong libertarian bona fides as a Cato Institute senior fellow, and there's a good chance he shared the idea after running out of patience in the carpool lane at his kids' school.
■ But sometimes good principles come into conflict with one another. Of course, it is a central tenet of market economics that prices are a medium of information, and the signals they convey are generally best allowed to flow freely so that they transmit that information where it will find purpose. If people see that prices are rising for a good or service (be it gasoline or haircuts or anything else), those rising prices tell potential suppliers to consider entering the market or finding substitutes to offer. Price signals do a tremendous service that human beings (like economic planners in controlled economies) have a terrible track record of duplicating. Price controls rarely work, and free-floating prices help fix shortages.
■ However, some goods and services are not particularly sensitive to price signals -- especially where a monopoly provider (like a government) is involved. One parent's willingness to pay more to get through the carpool lane swiftly doesn't necessarily translate to the school allocating its own resources more effectively to allow that to happen.
■ In those cases, it's worth considering that there are other signals to which people may be sensitive, and those can include political pressures. One of the ways to make sure that public services are responsive is to egalitarianize the experience -- to ensure that there isn't a convenient way to escape the lines at the DMV or to get a permit from City Hall. If everyone has to suffer through the same wait, then the people with the highest value on their time have the largest incentives to bark about the delays. Pressure for reform from elite circles can have very useful effects inside government, especially if elected officials think well-resourced citizens are going to hold them accountable for failing to improve.
■ These signals are imperfect, too. And there can be room for price signals as well as political signals -- the TSA PreCheck is probably good not only for the people who use it to expedite their screening at the airport, but also for the safety travel more generally. (And, in complete fairness, Lincicome knows that and was probably just having some fun.)
■ It's important, though, to make sure that people really do keep up the pressure, through whatever means are available, to insist that government always seek better ways of delivering goods and services, especially when the public doesn't have anywhere else to turn. One of the problems of modern living is that it can be expensive to be poor -- and though there are a lot of things that market signals can do to make things better (especially for the poor), it's important from a social standpoint to be sure that some citizens can't simply use their means to bypass avoidable indignities that others are left behind to suffer.
■ Money does a lot of work -- but sometimes we're better off ensuring that everyone has to sacrifice their time equally, so that there's enough push coming from the right voices to ensure that those sacrifices are kept to a minimum.