A question in an advice column asked if it was unethical to pay nothing for a product or service that was priced at “pay what you can.” It reminded me of an ongoing disagreement I had with the board of my theater company regarding holding a “pay-what you can” performance in each production’s run. Many of the other Greater Washington theaters were employing the tactic, and one of the main arguments for our theater doing the same was “Everybody does it.” You know what I think of THAT logic.
There was an altruistic, community spirited argument, of course: provide an opportunity for people who couldn’t afford typical theater prices. That sounds good, but in practice the theory was more ideology than reality. When we tried the gimmick, almost all of the attendees were people who regarded it as a chance to pay less than they usually did, as in “almost nothing.” People who don’t go to theater mostly aren’t interested in theater. Our prices were under 30 bucks a ticket, far less than many of our competitors, and children were admitted free, another concession to the needs of theater-loving families with limited budgets. Again, almost nobody took advantage of that benefit.
My objections to “pay-what-you-can”:
- It creates an incentive for consumers to rationalize unethical conduct. Products and services have costs. Those who benefit from them are ethically obligated to pay all or a reasonable proportion of those costs.
Pay-what-you-can really means pay-what-you-want, and wanting to get something for little or nothing to the detriment of those offering that something is unfair and irresponsible.
- It provides an easy rationalization for both lying and stealing.
The consumers who “can’t” pay more than 5 dollars for a $25 ticket miraculously can pay more than that for beer, or a ticket to a movie they want to see, or a big container of popcorn. What their act of paying what they “can” amounts to in many cases as a statement that the product or service isn’t worth more than what they want to pay for it.
Well, fine. Don’t use the product or service then.
- It makes the product or service provider complicit in their own exploitation, which is incompetent.
In the advice column, the questioner said that money was tight and she really wanted to keep taking the online yoga class, so doing so free would be great. But times are also tight for the yoga instructor, who is trying “pay-what-you-can” in the desperate and misguided hope that it will keep people attending who wouldn’t have otherwise and who will be fair without using the opportunity to their own advantage.
If I use a service or acquire a product that I really want or need, and it is being offered at “pay-what-you-can” pricing, I will pay the usual price, because that’s the only honest course. That price isn’t going to break me, and I’m getting fair value for it; implicitly saying I can’t pay it is a lie.