In today's Slate, Alison Griswold addresses the issue of cranky travelers and the ever-shrinking world of air travel amenities, and in the process, she delivers a lesson in how the free market sometimes works.
Everyone complains about the shrinking world of air travel. Smaller seats. Less legroom. Fees for every conceivable. I fully expect that at some point airlines will charge not only to transport the clothing in our luggage but also to let us transport the clothes on our back. Why, oh why, do the airlines keep providing less and less for travelers at increasingly nickle-and-dime prices? Griswold has an answer--
Because air travelers choose to make it so.
One pair of stats tell the story. The most loathed, the most complained-about, the most customer-annoying airline by far is Spirit. And the airline that is tops in turning a profit? Also Spirit. While people may pay lip service to the idea of quality, when it comes time to dig out the wallets, people cast their vote for As Cheap As We Can Stand, partly because people are cheap and partly because people just don't have that much money to spend.
Here is yet another example of how the free market does not necessarily foster a drive for excellence at all. In the case of the airlines, the Invisible Hand is apparently tightly grasped around a wallet.
Once again, the idea that free market competition in schools will somehow bring about an era of educational excellence-- well, it just doesn't look like how things work in the real world. In the real world, the free market drives competition to make some products and services just as cheap as we can stand. Many folks in the education biz will recognize As Cheap As We Can Get Away With as a not-uncommon guiding principle in school system budgeting.
But the airline example is not completely applicable to schooling-- schooling is actually even worse.
If an education is a plane ticket to San Jose, then we might well figure we can put up with a lot just to keep things cheap. But since our schools are funded by all taxpayers, for many folks an education is really like buying a plane ticket to San Jose for somebody else. And if somebody else is going to ride in that tiny seat with no leg room-- well, heck, that doesn't really inconvenience me much here at home at all. Even if we assume a voucher system in which taxpayers give students a lump of money to go buy their ticket to San Jose, the amount taxpayers will pitch in for the ticket will still tend to be low.
So the favored few will travel in First Class because they can afford it, and occasionally the airline will upgrade some lucky traveler, but most folks will travel in crappy cramped coach conditions. And the invisible hand of the free market will not make the slightest move toward pursuing excellence.