“Pay What You Can” Ethics

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”: Continue reading