American exceptionalism includes hating to queue. Silicon Valley has been happy to help out.
What is the heart of American exceptionalism? Is it Alexis de Tocqueville's "they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom"? How about Abraham Lincoln's "conceived in liberty"? Or Ronald Reagan's spirit of rugged individualism? Meh. Those are answers for a high-school civics exam. It's actually much simpler: Americans will put up with just about anything—except for waiting in line.
It's no coincidence that nearly every important technology development of the past 20 years also happens to be a line-killer. Print-at-home boarding passes, automatic hotel checkout, bar code scanners. ATMs to avoid waiting for—and talking with—bank tellers. And when's the last time anyone has waited to use a pay phone?
This productivity revolution based on queue-quashing has just begun, yet even now you can almost live your entire life without waiting in line. Amazon Prime will deliver most of what you need within two days. The taxi-on-demand service Uber lets you snake the cab line. FasTrak in California and E-ZPass in New York and New Jersey zip you into the quick lane to pay tolls. Heck, people are even buying ugly, overpriced Priuses to experience the nirvana of H.O.V. carpool lanes.
Fandango does away with lines for movie tickets, and Netflix posts the entire season of "House of Cards" at once so there's no more waiting for the next episode. At Disneyland, Fastpass, their "virtual queue system," eliminates waiting for Indiana Jones Adventure. Self-checkout lines at Safeway, ShopRite and Home Depot make swiping Visa cards quicker. A new company named QLess has a mobile app to eliminate lines at restaurants and stores by sending an alert to your phone when they're ready for you.
Europeans, on the other hand, seem to relish a chance to wait. Maybe it's the Continent's off-and-on love affair with socialism that causes them to think nothing of lining up for tickets, for trains, for museums, or for a chance to curtsy before the queen. Americans demand instant gratification. Lines are for losers.
The underlying technology of line avoidance is a great American success story.
Radio frequency readers, payment systems, global-positioning systems, smartphones, Wi-Fi, cloud storage and more all came together in Silicon Valley's giant test tube. Why wait to gossip when you can immediately text it, tweet it or post it to Instagram?
Amazingly, even government lines have shrunk. We get dismissed from jury duty online, ATMs dispense postage stamps, and DMVs take reservations. These bureaucratic innovations aren't everywhere yet, but they will be soon enough. Sometimes it seems like the only lines left in America are at airport security, Krzyzewskiville for Duke hoops games and seemingly every women's restroom.
Lines are fundamentally about shortages. Retailers create massive lines on Black Friday by creating artificial shortages of $79 plasma TVs. Obamacare creates artificial shortages of in-network doctors. But there are few true shortages in this country anymore. We're lucky to live in a time where the only shortage is of lines themselves.
Some claim that lines are the great equalizers. Yeah, right. Even when lines break down, we have market solutions. Put a price tag on anything scarce and it will be scarce no more.
Frequent fliers get early boarding to lock up scarce overhead space and avoid onerous baggage fees. Airlines now let you pay up front to use the First Class express security line. And then the ultimate: You can even use the site TaskRabbit to pay someone to wait in line for you at hot restaurants, like New York City's Mission Chinese, that don't take reservations.
Markets always prevail, even in some surprising places. When I was in Moscow years back, I waited in line with my family to enter Lenin's Tomb in Red Square. It doesn't get more equal than that. Sadly, the line was taking forever, so I slipped a guy in uniform—with a machine gun no less—$10 to let us cut the line. When we got inside, Lenin looked as white as a ghost.