First Come, First Served?

Ethics 130 (2):179-207 (2020)
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Waiting time is widely used in health and social policy to make resource allocation decisions, yet no general account of the moral significance of waiting time exists. We provide such an account. We argue that waiting time is not intrinsically morally significant, and that the first person in a queue for a resource does not ipso facto have a right to receive that resource first. However, waiting time can and sometimes should play a role in justifying allocation decisions. First, there is a duty of fairness prohibiting line-cutting where a sufficiently just queue exists. Second, waiting time has several morally attractive features that can justify its incorporation into allocation schemes. Where candidates are in relevantly similar circumstances, allocating by waiting time is relatively efficient, maximizes distribution equality relative to other Pareto efficient distributions, and treats candidates fairly. The claim that allocation using waiting time is fair is controversial. Some have claimed that formal lotteries are a fairer way to select among equal beneficiaries. We argue that lotteries are no fairer than allocation based on waiting time when it is equiprobable how a prospective queue will be ordered. In practice, lotteries share many of the disadvantages of queues; which is fairer will depend on contingent features of the allocation scenario. The upshot is that first-come, first-served is in fact a just way to allocate resources in many of the cases where it seems pre-theoretically compelling, and waiting time has unique normative properties which frequently justify its incorporation into resource allocation schemes.

Author Profiles

Tyler John
Longview Philanthropy
Joseph Millum
University of St. Andrews


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