It’s Free … Is It?
I do not want to wade into controversial topics. I know where I stand on most issues and how I fit (or don’t) with prevailing opinions. Occasionally though, I’m stumped when hearing about a mindset or practice that seems innocuous or acceptable, but causes me ill-ease.
While I might rant (off-line) at corrupt or negligent government and corporate malfeasance, I support both taxpayer-funded institutions and for-profit capitalism. I try to live by the “Do what’s right when no one’s watching” moral code.
Recently I read a blog post about a town where metro tickets are priced by the hour, and people who don’t use the full hour leave the tickets near the metro entrance for others to use. The blogger did not say, but I presume this is not intended or condoned by the governmental agency who expects each rider to purchase a ticket.
The blogger called this “free metro tickets” and likened it to the growing “peer-to-peer sharing economy” (see link below). The intent of the post was to promote this valuable “free” service.
As I was reading the post, I had that sense of ill-ease.
The metro ticket probably cost a couple Euros; it had already been paid for; it would clearly benefit the follow-on recipient.
Where’s the harm?
As I read the peer-to-peer article, it became clear that ownership and intentional sharing are the underlying premises. A homeowner, car owner, or outright owner of any asset is willingly sharing/renting the unused portion of that asset. No other individual or entity has a stake or ownership in the asset. Therefore no third party is subsidizing, paying for – or is financially harmed by – the sharing/rental.
What is different about the purported “free” sharing of the metro ticket?
The ticket owner does not own the asset; he/she simply purchased the right to use the metro for an hour. I know – you might ask, “Then doesn’t he/she have the right to give away the unused time on the ticket?”
I don’t know … but my ill-ease tells me the answer is No.
Governments collect taxes based on their projections of capital and operating expenditures; usage numbers and many other factors. Taxpayers have paid for these government assets. While this ticket sharing might appear “free” to the user, it certainly isn’t without cost to the taxpayer. I doubt the metro agency is willingly allowing this “free ride” on a taxpayer-owned asset.
Publicly touting this as a “free metro ticket” and deeming it part of the peer-to-peer sharing concept seems incongruent to me. In addition, our growing electronic environment facilitates numerous opportunities to exploit similar “free” practices that, with enough exploitation, could significantly harm taxpayers and business owners.
I am a former restaurant owner. How long would I have stayed in business if customers ordered meals, paid the bill, ate half, and allowed someone else to slip into their seats to finish the “free” meal, using space and labor that should have been available to another paying customer?
Is the “free” metro ticket any different? Why? Because it’s a service instead of a product? Because it’s a government entity? Because the taxpayer’s cost is invisible to the user? Because it’s only a Euro or two?
Perhaps I’m making a mountain out of a molehill.
But my gut tells me this is not the same thing as peer-to-peer sharing.
C’mon, Sammy. Stop kvetching. It’s free … is it?