Archive for August, 2009

Paying People not to be Bad

Saturday, August 15th, 2009

An idea that has been working its way around my head for a few days is to do with paying people not to do bad things. We are generally confortable with the idea of punishing people who commit crimes. Rewarding people who do good deeds and are successful is also popular. However, rewarding people who are likely to commit a crime but choose not to is controversial. It is unfair to those who are not likely to commit the crime, as they receive no reward but are equally innocent.

One example of paying people not to commit a crime is a publicly subsidised taxi service intended to reduce drink driving. Somebody goes to a bar and drinks alcohol. They might decide to drive home or take a taxi. Their decision to drive, and commit a undoubtedly serious crime, might be based on the risk of having an accident (which many foolishly ignore), the risk of being stopped by the police and the price of a taxi fare.

The government can try to solve this issue by promoting awareness of the risks of drink driving, increasing the importance of the first consideration in the drinker’s mind. Many countries have gut-wrenching adverts showing the harrowing effects of accidents that have resulted from drink driving. This puts the dangers to the front of people’s minds and makes drink driving less socially acceptable. However, alcohol is a notorious judgement inhibitor. Putting aside the thought of danger and feeling contempt for do-gooders are all too easy when drunk.

With regard to the second consideration, the state can put more police on the roads and make the penalties more severe. Of these, more police might be more effective. In my opinion, a criminal commits a crime because he or she assumes that they will not be caught, rather than the assumption that the punishment will be bearable. I doubt that drinkers about to drive say to themselves “Oh well, it’ll only be a year without a driving license.” The ‘Bring back flogging and hanging’ brigade get a grim pleasure from seeing ne’er-do-wells being punished. Such braying for blood is mere sadism. However, a higher probability of being arrested might have an effect.

The third consideration could be to subsidise the taxi companies in an attempt to reduce the cost of fares. If the money comes from general taxation, teetotalers and stay-at-home drinkers might balk at paying for a service that they do not use. The money could also come from a tax levied on bars. Again, customers who stroll tipsily but harmlessly back home from a pub might begrudge having to pay for others. They should console themselves with the no doubt decreased likelihood of being run over.

Is the proverbial stick preferable to the carrot? Tax payers might broadly agree to their money being spent on schemes that reward others for not commiting crimes, which they themselves never intended to commit, because the benefits outweigh the costs. But what are the consequences? Does a subsidised taxi service not encourage people to drink more? Is it not more prudent to make drinkers fully take moral, legal and financial responsibility for getting themselves home?