by JEANNE FLEMING, PH.D. and LEONARD SCHWARZ
Question: I often pick up a sandwich for lunch at the Whole Foods deli counter, where all the customers take a number. Recently, a guy who arrived after I did gave a teenager whose number was about to be called ten bucks for it. Wasn’t what this guy did unfair and unethical? My wife says I’m overreacting, but I’m outraged.
Our answer: So are we.
Let’s start, though, with what the guy didn’t do wrong. First and foremost, he didn’t push you or anyone else he hadn’t paid back a place in line. You weren’t, in other words, unfairly treated.
Moreover, what Mr. Big Shot did was in keeping with what’s done in many other settings, namely: paying a premium to get faster or otherwise better service. For example, customers willing to pay a larger membership fee get special shopping hours at Costco.
True, in situations like that, it’s the institutions that offer the deal, not the customers. But so what? There’s no more virtue in a business collecting a convenience fee than in it going to one of their customers.
So what is the problem? The problem is that while it’s perfectly okay for money to talk, it shouldn’t be talking so loudly at the deli counter.
We have a tradition – rooted in the principle of equality among men – of first come, first served. And while it‘s true that money buys all sorts of privileges and buys out of all sorts of inconveniences, it shouldn’t corrupt the processes that remain first come, first served. At their core, they’re democratic, and that’s how they should stay.