The JetBlue Democracy Experiment
JetBlue has released a video of a social experiment they conducted mid-flight with 150 passengers. A JetBlue spokesman went on the plane’s intercom to announce that everybody on the plane had won a free round-trip flight to anywhere in the world on one condition: the passengers must unanimously decide on one single destination for their free trip.
The publicity stunt was staged as a commentary on modern political discourse. Half of the passengers were arbitrarily given red voting paddles, and half were given blue paddles. They were encouraged to “reach across the aisle” to achieve consensus. The video starts with the JetBlue spokesman saying, “It seems like the world has been struggling to come to an agreement. People everywhere are digging in and holding their ground, refusing to compromise.” He says this while the video shows clips of the US Capitol Building standing tall, an American flag waving in the wind, a generic politician pounding a podium, and rams violently locking horns.
They first voted on whether to fly domestic or international, and then narrowed down their choices from there, voting at each step using their paddles. As inspirational music plays, we watch the passengers come to an agreement: they will all go to Costa Rica.
The key message of the commercial is that if we just work together and make some sacrifices, we can all win. For me, however, it showed how flawed democratic processes are, especially when the outcome of the collective decision involves free stuff.
Now, there is absolutely no problem whatsoever with JetBlue voluntarily gifting trips to their customers as a way to attract even more customers. And the same goes for them putting a democratic twist on their game so that it might interest social media users to spread their video and brand throughout the internet.
The problems come from JetBlue using this example to show how great democracy is, if the stubborn citizens around us would just go with the flow. Even though everybody got a free flight out of the deal, a handful of passengers voted for a domestic flight at the start. So, at the very beginning of the experiment we see people have different preferences. These same people had to go with the flow of everybody else’s preferences for the rest of the democracy experiment, or else they would get nothing and deprive all of their fellow passengers of a free trip.
The passengers never had a unanimous preference until the final vote, when those in the minority were made to vote with the majority or else nobody got anything. JetBlue did their best to portray the final steps in a good light, with citizen-passengers engaged in a productive debate over their choices. However, it was obvious that many, from the domestic flight voters at the beginning to the Turks and Caicos voters at the end, were just unlucky to be in the minority opinion.
The experiment also revealed another crucial problem with democratic processes: the voters have no incentive to minimize costs. The passengers were making choices about something being provided by JetBlue. The analogy to American democracy becomes disjointed because JetBlue offered the gift voluntarily, and probably put some constraints on the possible destinations. In American democracy, the gifts up for grabs to the voting public are unwillingly paid for by other members of the voting public — and this group of net tax payers is often their own minority.
We see the disregard for the costs of the flight at the first step, when the majority chose an international flight over a cheaper domestic one. This isn’t the passengers’ fault, but just a feature of democratic processes in general. Had I been there, I would have voted for an international flight too, because I would have known that JetBlue was paying for it and I want to get the best deal I can from their generosity.
Unhampered markets do not suffer the same problems. Markets allow for everybody to purchase goods independent of what the majority opinion is. If you disagree with the majority opinion in music, movies, fashion, books, food, or anything, you can peacefully dissent by simply buying what you prefer, while those in the majority buy what they prefer. Democracy means that everybody must settle for the same outcome. Surprisingly, some forms of democracy, like first-past-the-post voting in American democracy, are prone to deliver a suboptimal result even for the majority.
With markets, the provision of goods is economized. Entrepreneurs, in their attempts to guess consumer demands, are automatically encouraged not to use resources that have some better use, or else they would have forgone profits. They are also automatically encouraged to create something others find more valuable than the resources that go into their production process, or else they would incur losses.
No such mechanisms exist in democratic processes, which lead democratic governments to build up large amounts of debt and a bitter tax base.
Perhaps JetBlue could conduct another giveaway on a separate flight, but allow each individual to decide their own destination. Or, they could have the passengers play a competitive game, the outcome of which determined which group of destinations you could win, but then allow the passengers to trade their winnings after the game. There are many ways to structure a giveaway in which each passenger can choose their own destination, or can trade with other passengers to simulate the mechanisms and consequences of voluntary exchange.
I guarantee that if you interviewed the passengers of the Democracy Flight and compared their experience with those in the Capitalism Flight, more passengers would have achieved their first- or second-best choice in the Capitalism Flight. Only individual choice and voluntary exchange, not one-size-must-fit-all democracy, can achieve this.