Ethics of Queuing (for the iPhone)

From the NY Times, yesterday:
A Modest Survey of the iPhone Obsessed
The story is mostly about who, what kind of person, is crazy enough to stand in line for a sufficiently fancy cellphone.
But there’s a business ethics element, here, namely in the issue of people standing in line overnight just in order to be able to sell their place in line. In fact, since selling a position in line is a business interaction between (potential) customers, this is an issue of both business ethics and consumer ethics.

Queues (lineups) are a method for controlling (and distributing) access to a scarce good (whether it be a theatre ticket, a heart transplant, or a gorgeous 3G iPhone). They embody a particular theory (or micro-theory) of distributive justice, namely “first come, first served.” Social conventions regarding behaviour in queues (“No butting in!”) can be quite strict (though they vary enormously internationally). Many people regard the selling of a place in line as a violation of that principle, changing “first come, first served” into “highest bidder, first served.”

It’s an interesting example of a norm the only defence of which may be that it is, in fact, a norm (or perhaps part of a network of norms). After all, if I’m 2nd in line, whether the guy in front of me is there because he got there earlier, or because he bought the spot from a guy who got there earlier, really doesn’t affect me at all. So it’s hard to see any harm being done. The objection seems to be in some sense about merit: the guy who bought the better spot in line doesn’t deserve to be there. And perhaps, in the end, that means that selling a spot in line jeopardizes the incredibly-useful norms surrounding queuing itself. So, hard question: if the business you’re in (here, selling spots in line) has a social impact that hard to measure or even specify, how do we respond to it, ethically?

See also:
Markets in everything, dining edition (a MarginalRevolution blog posting about a company that sells reservations at good restaurants, another form of selling positions in line)
F. Neil Brady, “Lining Up for Star-Wars Tickets: Some Ruminations On Ethics and Economics Based on An Internet Study of Behavior in Queues,” Journal of Business Ethics, 38: 157–165, 2002. [subscription req’d, to see more than the abstract]
Queuing and Waiting: Studies in the Social Organization of Access and Delay (book by Barry Schwartz, via
Wikipedia on Queuing Theory

Thanks to Wayne (who loves the NYT almost as much as he loves his iPhone.)

And no, this blog posting was not sponsored by Apple. I wish!

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