This article was published in 2018, in Newsletter 138.
I was chatting with a friend the other week who just happens to live in America. You know, the place with freeways, free-thinking, freezers, freewheeling down the side of mountains, and free ice cream.
Yes, there are little ice cream stores all over the country that, on National Free Ice Cream Day, stay open from morning till night serving cones of free ice cream. My friend popped in on the way home from work, parking near the store, and joined the queue for ice cream. About 45 minutes later they were in possession of a cone with a small scoop of ice cream. I noted that this took way too long and it appeared to be a complete waste of time. They agreed, but said it was free. But they did see people who having just obtained one ice cream would queue up for the next one. They also noted that these people were slowing everybody else down.
As a thought exercise, perhaps we should have grown up in a free-ice-cream country. A country with free ice cream every day of the year. Ice cream is a human right after all. And everybody should be able to enjoy ice cream for free every day of the year. There are many benefits to this lifestyle. The stores would have to employ more people to serve all this free ice cream. We would need to provide bigger stores to accommodate the demand. Just think of all the employment from building new and expanded stores. Graphs produced by the central government Department for Ice Cream would show demand for ice cream ever growing. Links between consuming ice cream and productivity would clearly make the business case for investing in more and bigger ice-cream stores.
But reducing the queue size just means more people visiting to get more delicious desserts, so even after the stores are expanded the queues actually get longer. Engineering solutions are found to this problem. Grade-separated stores, traffic lights to control the flow of people into and out of the store. And after a few decades of domination by this ice-cream-based food system, perhaps a smart person suggests that they try something else. Perhaps they need to set a price for ice cream. You know, treat ice cream just like every other commodity and charge people for it. No! Ice cream has always been free and must stay free. What about the poor people who can’t afford to pay for ice cream? How can people survive without access to free ice cream? What about elderly people, what will they eat if they can’t get their free ice cream? Of course, people will silently ignore all the side-effects of all this free ice cream consumption. The over-weight population and lost productivity being just a couple of obvious ones.
I wonder what would happen if they priced roads just like they price ice cream on the other 364 days a year? Would the queues shrink? Would people use the cheaper alternatives, like buses? Would investment in those alternatives be more likely if there was a steady income stream? Would people demand better and cheaper public transport? Would people want more cycle lanes because they still like their freedom but don’t want to pay to use the roads?