I recently changed some British sterling pounds for UAE Dhirams, at a Travelex exchange desk outside the security clearance area at Heathrow Terminal Three. As I got through the metal detector a message came over the Intercom. "Can Mr Maturin please return to the Travelex Desk". I instantly realised I had left my plastic bank card inside the PIN machine. I turned to go back out through the security checkpoint.
"I'm sorry," said a dull voiced British government security wonk, "now that you're through security, you can't go back."
What to do? Two weeks away and my bank card left in a Travelex shop, to fall to who knew what fate?
With a small amount of adrenaline pumping through my veins I approached a "security" desk. Three state chumps sat there, appearing to do "not much". I wondered how much each of them was costing me in salary and pension costs. Perhaps upwards of £50,000 a year each. As these were my servants, whom I pay for, I thought they might be able to help me.
I roused one of these wonder workers, whose probable only excitement in life is a once-a-week "random" test of the security system, every Tuesday, at 10:45am. I explained my situation to the chump. His expression ranged between not giving a monkeys and contempt.
JM: "Can I go back through security, and go back to the Travelex shop, and then straight back here again?"
Chump: "You can't do that. It's against immigration regulations."
JM: "Can one of you three accompany me out, and then accompany me back again?"
Chump: "We have to man this desk sir."
All three were doing absolutely nothing discernible. I suppose they may have been doing something intricate with their feet, but it wasn't showing up on their body postures. There was no-one else in the vicinity, except me. We were right beside the back of the Travelex shop. There was a door ten feet away labelled security, which fairly obviously went back out onto the external concourse. This was maddening.
JM: "So what do I do then?"
Chump: "You'll have to go through the terminal building, then through departures, then through customs and passport checks, then back up to the arrivals hall, get your card, then back through security."
This would have taken about 25 minutes at best and about 50 minutes at worst. My flight was leaving in one hour, with a last call in 45 minutes. Not the end of the world, but hardly what you might call convenient.
JM: "And there's no other way of doing it, and no way any of you three can help me?"
JM: "Could one of you go and get it for me?"
Chump: "That's against regulations."
All three men were openly on the verge of laughing at me now, despite my payment of their salaries and pensions, via her majesty's inland revenue department.
JM: "Well, Gentlemen, thanks for all of your help. I can see you're all really quite busy."
By this time my adrenaline was running quite high, and if I left it much longer I would really be pushing my flight to the wire. I then had a brainwave. I quickly walked up to the nearest Travelex inside the security zone and asked a busy desk member if they could get my card for me.
He looked a bit harassed, but made a quick phone call.
"Someone will be through in a minute with your card, sir. They had a trainee on today and she forgot to check the PIN machine was empty. We're sorry about that."
Sure enough, within five minutes a Travelex staff member had appeared and gave me back my card.
"Sorry it took me so long, sir. It's horrendous getting through airside security at this time in the morning."
And there we have the difference between power and market. Power is over-manned, lazy, inefficient, has poor to non-existent levels of service, is expensive, arrogant, is hidebound with rules, inflexible, sees the people who pay its wages as irrelevant insects, is contemptible, intolerant of mistakes, and robotic.
Whereas market is busy, efficient, serves the customer, helps to tackle mistakes, tries its best to get the job done as quickly as possible, is flexible, and is above all, human.
One serves itself. The other serves everyone else, despite being tied in knots by the rapacity of power.
Give me the market each and every day of the week.