Why don’t people wait in lines in the developing world?

Economist Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame just got back from a trip to Poland, and he’s got a complaint: I have never seen such obvious disrespect for other people when it came to cutting in lines, even when it meant that the person who cut would have to stand in front of you in line ...

602293_070425_queue_05.jpg
602293_070425_queue_05.jpg

Economist Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame just got back from a trip to Poland, and he's got a complaint:

I have never seen such obvious disrespect for other people when it came to cutting in lines, even when it meant that the person who cut would have to stand in front of you in line for the next 15 minutes.

RAVEENDRAN/AFP

Economist Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame just got back from a trip to Poland, and he’s got a complaint:

I have never seen such obvious disrespect for other people when it came to cutting in lines, even when it meant that the person who cut would have to stand in front of you in line for the next 15 minutes.

RAVEENDRAN/AFP

Obviously, Levitt hasn’t traveled much outside of the United States and Western Europe. Anyone who’s been to a busy falafel stand in Cairo or a train station in India will tell you that lines are clearly more of a developed world thing. But Levitt is on the right track here in looking for incentives, not culture, as an explanation for this difference:

What surprised me most about the line cutting was that having lived under communism for so long, I would have thought that the Poles would have perfected standing in line. I would have predicted even greater courtesy than you find elsewhere. Perhaps, I just got the theory backwards. With so many years of shortages, the rewards for becoming an expert line cutter were much greater in Poland than in the U.S.

I’m sure some smart economist out there has written on this topic in some obscure journal; there’s even an academic term, “queue discipline,” that refers to the rules that determine how those waiting in lines are serviced—e.g. first come, first served. There has been some interesting theoretical research by the prolific Rochester Institute of Technology economist Amitrajeet Bataybal on how scarcity of commodities like rice and groundwater can lead to violence (pdf), but surprising little else of relevance. Sounds like a job for Steven Levitt!

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