≡ Menu

Jumping the Queue Is Bad When the Object of the Queuers’ Desire is Genuinely Scarce – Not Necessarily When the Queue Is Itself Artificially Constructed

In light of the heightened discussion of immigration, I reprise this post from seven years ago:

Queuing Up for a Bad Analogy

by DON BOUDREAUX on MAY 19, 2006


People who jump the queue – who “cut in line” – are annoying because they directly harm others. Their selfishness reduces other peoples’ range of opportunities. At best, they play zero-sum games: what queue-jumpers gain in reduced waiting time and increased chances of securing the scarce object is lost by those who patiently wait their turn. Clearly, queue jumping is undesirable.

This waiting-in-line, and queue-jumping, analogy is used in the current immigration debate to condemn ‘illegal’ immigration.  Immigrants here without Uncle Sam’s permission are said to have jumped the queue, not waited their turn for opportunities to enter legally.  But I believe that this analogy is misplaced and, hence, misleading.

Many of the Latin American immigrants who are in the United States without Uncle Sam’s stamp of approval likely have little or no chance of getting in legally. Therefore, for these people – for those whose chances of entering the U.S. legally are practically zero – there is no line for them to wait in.  To tell them to wait their turn implies that they, in fact, will have a turn.  But no chance at any real turn to enter the USA exists for many foreigners.  So it’s incorrect to portray such foreigners who then enter ‘illegally’ as selfish scoundrels who jump the queue merely to speed up their arrival in the U.S.

Now ask: does coming to the United States without Uncle Sam’s stamp of approval hurt those who are waiting in line to get this approval as a condition of entering the land of the free and the home of the brave? I don’t see how. The number of legal immigration slots isn’t reduced by the number of ‘illegal’ immigrants entering the USA.

Indeed, to the extent that those who enter the USA ‘illegally’ would be eligible for legal-immigration status, their entering ‘illegally’ actually helps aspiring immigrants who are waiting in the queue. Those who enter the USA ‘illegally’ obviously aren’t waiting in the queue to get here ‘legally’; therefore, immigrants who enter ‘illegally,’ rather than join the queue, shorten the queue.  Those waiting in the queue are made better off.

So the ‘jumping-the-queue’ analogy misleads because our disgust at queue jumpers springs from our correct sense that queue jumpers hurt those who wait their turns in the queue. But ‘illegal’ immigrants don’t hurt those waiting in the queue for Uncle Sam’s approval to enter.

There are other problems with the queue-jumping analogy that, perhaps, I’ll discuss in later posts.

And this one:

Queuing Up for a Bad Analogy II

by DON BOUDREAUX on MAY 19, 2006


Robert Cote, commenting on the first installment in this series of blog-posts, says:

“I suggest you test your theory at Disneyland.  Ignore the parking regs, jump the lines, sneak past the security checks, don’t pay at the gate and when you get inside avail yourself of the attractions and services. If as you predict the theme park becomes a better place for your actions and indeed those waiting in line applaud your actions and eventually approve of your brave actions as being in their best interests I shall withdraw my clam.”

This response is appropriate and sensible; it gets us to the heart of the matter.  The heart of the matter is not queue-jumping; it is, rather, the belief that the object sought by those waiting in the queue – and by those jumping the queue – is scarce.

The Disneyland analogy works better the more the following is true:

– the U.S. is crowded

– the number of jobs and amount of capital per worker are more or less fixed in quantity

– people, once here, frequently free-ride on goods and services provided by government

Disneyland, after all, is a small space, and privately created, maintained, and owned. Frequently it is on the verge of being over-crowded, so that each new entrant into that amusement park reduces other people’s ability to enjoy the park.  Disney has a strong incentive to keep the park from becoming too crowded; it achieves this goal largely by charging high prices.  (I’ll note that Disney doesn’t deny large swaths of people any real chance of entering its park. An aspiring customer doesn’t have to be related to an existing customer, for example.)

Also, Disney has an incentive to keep the length of its queues as short as possible.  I’ve been to DisneyWorld three times, most recently in April 2005; never have I had a significant wait to enter the park.  (I did wait in several queues for a variety of rides and attractions within the park.  But for these queues, the standard queue-jumping analysis that I explained in my previous post fits perfectly.)

Moreover, Disney’s customers are not producers.  Disneyland is a consumption experience. People pay to get in to consume scarce experiences and things. The rides are there for customers to consume; likewise for the food, drinks, and mouse ears and other trinkets.

But immigrants who come to the United States are not just consumers; most are also producers. (Incidentally, even if they were exclusively consumers, if they – like Disney’s customers – paid for all that they consume, there would be no problem.  Problems arise when immigrants – and citizens – free-ride on goods and services supplied by others.)

It’s here that I believe the analogy with Disneyland breaks down irreparably.  Not only are immigrants not coming to America to crowd us Americans out of ‘our’ spaces and jobs, most come to produce.  I support more open immigration because I am quite confident that

– the U.S. is not crowded

– the number of jobs and amount of capital per worker are emphatically not fixed in quantity

– while people, once here, free-ride on goods and services provided by government, the first step in solving this problem is to enable more foreigners to work in America legally; that way, immigrants’
contributions to the economy
 in general, and to the provision of public goods, will be even greater than it already is;


– people, being the ultimate resource, help deepen and widen the division of labor — which is the chief source of human prosperity.

Jeff Jacoby, of the Boston Globe, is especially eloquent on this matter.