Some more thoughts on theater economics


Author: Timothy Sandefur

My blog post on what theater tickets can teach about economics brought some emails all asking the same question, so I want to clarify. The question is—what about the poor person who really wants to go see a show but cannot afford a ticket?

The answer is that such a person must find a way to buy a ticket or ask another person to buy a ticket for him. It would be nice, of course, to live in a world where everyone could go see Shakespeare plays, but it costs money to put on a play, and the theater company deserves to be paid for their effort—and must be paid for their effort, because the actors and producers have bills to pay, too. To require them to perform without pay—to claim that people have a right to see the theater, and therefore that performers ought to put on the play for no money, would obviously be immoral as well as inefficient. Nobody has the right to demand the services of another, or to compel such services by force—and attempts to do so are extremely costly and ineffective.

Since the theater tickets must be paid for somehow, you’re left with this dilemma: should you force someone who has no interest in the theater to buy a ticket for the poor man who wants to see a show? Is it fair or just or right to compel someone who’s minding his own business to give up his paycheck to buy a ticket for a poor man who likes Shakespeare? Of course not. Sad as it is that there are theater lovers who can’t afford a show, it would be far more unjust to compel innocent people to give up their earnings to buy tickets for other people.

The poor man who cannot afford to see a Shakespeare play must either find a way to borrow or earn the money to buy a ticket, or must ask a wealthier person, a patron of the arts, to buy a ticket and give it to him. This honorable alternative is consistent with the principles of justice, because it does not take anything away from innocent people. It is also the most economically efficient alternative, because it doesn’t mean people get tickets who don’t want them, or that people are forced to pay for tickets against their will. And yet this alternative is the one most angrily and repeatedly attacked as being “insensitive” and lacking “compassion.” We are told that compassion and  sensitivity require us to implement (to continue with our analogy) government programs to force people to buy theater tickets for the poor, or that actors should be forced to perform for no money. What about compassion for the innocent person forced to buy theater tickets for someone else? What about sensitivity to the actors forced to perform for no money? These questions go unanswered because such people are the ones William Graham Sumner called “the forgotten men.”

Obviously it stinks to be poor. There’s nothing fun about it. But wishing it away—or legislating it away—won’t make it so. All of life is made up of tradeoffs between alternatives that all have downsides. It is not logically possible to have a society in which everyone gets everything they want whenever they want it. The only question is, what is the least bad way to accomplish what we want. And the least bad way to enable poor people who want to attend the theater, or who need medical care, is that they depend on private charity, or improve their income to allow them to buy tickets. To violate the rights of those who can afford such things, whether in the name of “compassion” or not, is immoral, illegal, and impractical.