On The Economics of Line Cutting

Robin Hanson is a person whose books, blog posts and tweets are all worth reading. You may not agree with him, some of his questions may raise your hackles, and some of his conclusions may make you want to tear your hair out, but those (to me) are arguments in his favor.

In a recent blogpost, Robin Hanson thinks about the economics of line cutting. This is a topic of some controversy at our household, for I and my wife have very different approaches to requests from strangers to cut in, while we are waiting in line.

My wife adopts a very belligerent stance, and is not at all open to the idea of allowing anybody to cut the line in front of her. It’s just too bad, she informs them, that you’re pressed for time, but my time is equally valuable. There is a line for a reason, she goes on to say, and surely it cannot be the case that our time (all those who are waiting in line) is less valuable. So please, she firmly suggests, get in line and wait for your turn.

I, on the other hand, am all about grimacing and waving the intruder ahead. I might shake my head and mutter under my breath about the unfairness of it all, but I’m willing to let people get ahead of me, especially so if they seem to be particularly harried.

Robin Hanson has some ‘advice’ for me:

While we like to claim that we are being nice, I suggest that we are avoiding confrontation. When someone makes an apparently aggressive move at our expense, we can either oppose them and risk a confrontation, or give in and avoid confrontation. Giving in is much easier for us when we have the excuse of how doing so is in fact us being nice.
We will often let people walk all over us as long as we can pretend we are thereby being nice. Even those tasked with enforcing rules against line cutting prefer to avoid confrontation. We all somehow seem to embrace the norm that those willing to risk confrontation should get their way, even if at others’ expense. We accept the dominance of the willing to try to dominate.


It is very hard to be objective about these things, but I do think it is likely that I am letting a person cut ahead of me because I willing to pay with my time to avoid confrontation. Don’t get me wrong, I would love it if I am willing to let people get ahead because I just am such a wonderful guy, but it is true to that I will go to great lengths to avoid confrontation.

But enough pop psychology about me – the reason I bring this blog post up (and my willingness to experience inconvenience to avoid confrontation) is to highlight an important lesson: costs and benefits apply to everything in life, not just monetary concepts.

Your choices (all of them, across all dimensions) come with costs and with benefits. Not all of them need have pecuniary consequences (that’s just fancy pants English for ‘related to money’). In fact, most of them will not have direct pecuniary consequences.

But once you realize that money itself is the means to an end, and not an end in itself, you begin to realize that you need to start thinking about costs and benefits in a much broader way than you have thus far – and that economics is about much more than ‘just’ money.

And so, yes, one can (and should!) think about the economics of line cutting.

I hope you never ask to cut ahead of me in a line, but if you see me grimacing, know that I would much rather that you didn’t, but I value my peace and quiet more than I do the two minutes that I will save. Or, at any rate, that’s my current equilibrium.

Who knows what the future will bring, eh?