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A-Scalping We Van Gogh

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Besides Monica, the other person who’s captured attention in Washington, D.C., these days is a troubled man who killed himself more than a hundred years ago.

Until January 4, the National Gallery of Art is exhibiting more than 70 paintings by Vincent van Gogh on loan from Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum. The paintings are stunning, but the scalpers are providing the controversy.

Yes, scalpers. We usually think of scalpers in connection with sporting events or rock concerts. But a high-brow art exhibit?

Advance tickets for the exhibit were snapped up at once. The National Gallery, however, gives away about 2,000 tickets each day, good for that day only. Naturally, people line up early. Some folks have been lining up at midnight, even though tickets are not given out until 10 o’clock.

Scalpers are arriving early too and selling their tickets on the street for a reported $75 to $100, though I was quoted $10, then two for $15.

Initially, the National Gallery gave each person in line up to six tickets, but it lowered the maximum to four. The Washington Post reported that this and other policy changes were made “to discourage scalpers selling the free tickets, and to get more genuine art lovers in to see the show.” That’s a questionable assumption-namely, that someone who buys a van Gogh ticket is less of an art lover than someone who waits in lines several hours. Besides, the person who waits for four tickets apparently plans to give three to people who didn’t wait in line. Do they also qualify as genuine art lovers?

The fallacy underlying the prejudice against scalpers and their customers is the belief that the tickets are free. Of course, they are not. They cost hours waiting in line. The real cost of the ticket for any person is the value of the highest-ranking alternative use of those hours. This is what economists call “opportunity cost.” We all know the saying “time is money.” But what’s money? It’s whatever you can buy with it. Both time and money ultimately represent satisfaction from consumption.

When we understand opportunity cost, we see scalpers in a whole new light.

By giving the tickets away, the National Gallery favors people with lots of time to wait against those with little spare time. In the spirit of free enterprise, scalpers give the second group a shot at otherwise unobtainable tickets. Their profit is the money minus the value of the time they invested waiting for tickets and any other expenses. To criticize scalpers is to say that people who cannot afford to wait in line are less worthy of enjoying van Gogh than those who cannot afford to pay cash. Is that really reasonable?

“Seventy-five dollars for a free ticket is foolish,” said one woman, obviously unschooled in economics, who waited three hours futilely. But a busy van Gogh lover who wants to see the paintings more than anything else he can spend $75 on must think that unnecessarily waiting for three hours in the cold-possibly in vain-is foolish. One pays in time, the other in cash. Trying to decide who is the more serious art aficionado is silly.

“If you’re going to pay that you’d at least want it to go to the National Gallery,” the woman added. But the Gallery chose not to sell the tickets. If it did sell them, fewer people would have lined up-the higher the price, the shorter the lines. Imagine how long the lines would be if the Gallery gave away a $20 bill with each ticket! (Question: why does a government of supposedly limited powers operate art galleries in the first place?)

Anything that people value will command a price. If it isn’t in terms of money, it’ll be in terms of time. That’s a law of nature that cannot be repealed.

When government thwarts scalpers-which is just a pejorative term for “entrepreneurs”-it capriciously favors one group of peaceful citizens over another. People who pay for tickets in cash should not be treated as second-class citizens.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.