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Egalitarian customer service

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Wednesday, Dec 26, 2007

This item from BusinessWeek about Southwest Airlines’ recent adjustments highlights a dilemma between treating people fairly and treating them equally:


When Southwest Airlines (LUV) rolled out its new business fares and boarding procedures in early November, the carrier’s blog quickly became crowded with comments. Nearly 500 impassioned remarks have been posted recently about the changes, which shook up Southwest’s longstanding first-come, first-served boarding policy. The old method often meant long waits in line at the gate. The new way assigns passengers a specific place in line and gives priority to frequent travelers and people who pay extra for “business select” fares. Families with small children who don’t check in early now wait longer to board.


To me, these sound like sensible changes. Who wants long waits at the gate? Isn’t waiting in the insane security line with your shoes off and your pants falling down indignity enough? First-come, first-serve makes sense on the Greyhound (though watch out for the ex-cons), but when you pay hundreds of dollars to travel somewhere, you should be able to book a seat. It makes much more sense to fill the seats in the order that they are purchased, or (most economists would likely argue) to use variable pricing to induce customers to pay extra for the privilege of securing advantageous seats. What is most fair, in terms of being most economically efficient, is to let each seat fetch whatever airlines can get for them. But when you sit beside someone on the same flight, enjoying a comparable square foot of personal space, and find out they paid hundreds of dollars less than you for the opportunity, this doesn’t seem so fair. It seems like some kind of discrimination has taken place and that you’ve been had. At that point, a customer is likely to think, What, is he better than me? Why should he pay less than me for the same thing? Same goods, same price: It seems the democratic way.


Hence Southwest customers don’t like that some customers can buy or travel their way into preferential treatment. Part of what travelers had paid for in flying Southwest, apparently, is the leveling experience of having to scramble for seats at departure time. It was a way to purchase an ersatz egalitarianism, since it stood in stark contrast to the first-class, second-class, etc., seating systems at other airlines. Getting that first row seat on a Southwest flight because you camped out at the gate and earned it was a way of erasing extraneous advantages, of getting a perk that is ordinarily unreachable to those who can’t afford to spend a fortune. What Southwest offered was an escape from money-based meritocracy, an escape from having what you are willing to spend serve as a proxy for your worthiness. Of course, most of these same consumers want precisely the opposite from their employers—they want to be rewarded specially for their merit and for their special talents. Perhaps this inconsistency is a way that consumerism helps capitalist democracies smooth over the perpetual conflict between justice and equality, or to put it another way, between equal opportunity and equal outcomes. As part of the production cycle, we want meritocracy, we want disparate outcomes to reflect our different abilities, ambitions, and efforts. But in the consumption cycle that occurs simultaneously, we want the illusion of egalitarianism, of an equal outcome regardless of effort or ability—we want the shortcuts and the conveniences to the feeling that no one else’s money is better than our own.


But that doesn’t take into account positional goods, which people consume to specifically destroy the spirit of egalitarianism. Positional goods allow us to express the class prerogatives and inherited advantages that distort our opportunities in general in the realm of consumption, where the market would seem to afford the same opportunities to all. The illusion of the democratic marketplace is useful to a point—to keep a class-riven society complacent through the magic of purchasing power—but beyond that point it is far more lucrative to exploit class insecurities, to manufacture scarcity and sell the thrill of exclusivity while fattening profit margins.

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