In the first post in this series, I chewed on the material from chapter 1 of Professor Michael Sandel’s book, What Money Can’t Buy. The first chapter was all about jumping the line (or budding, as I remember it from my elementary school days). In Chapter 2, the theme was incentives.
There were a few things that I wanted to highlight (though, I thought the whole chapter was fascinating). In particular what stood out to me were three things: incentives (and the perverting of incentives), fines vs. fees, and paying kids to read. Let’s start with the last one, which will link to the first one.
Nowadays, some parents pay their kids to read. In fact, some schools encourage the idea of rewarding children for reading. At first, this seems like a great use of the free market, right? Incentivizing the reading of books to get kids to read more books. Except, what if part of the pleasure of reading is the pure desire to read? By paying kids to read, it robs them of that intrinsic motivation. In fact, by paying kids to read, it could de-incentivize them from reading when there is no reward involved (perverting the incentives).
In thinking about this example, it made me contemplate just how hard it can be for lawmakers (i.e. Congresspeople, Members of Parliament, etc.) to write legislation that will properly incentivize the citizens to act in a way that is best for themselves (and the town/city/county/country, etc.). Paying kids to read seems like an easy way to get kids to read, but when one plays out the incentive and considers the unintended consequences, one can see how this perverts the intent of getting kids to read.
The next piece I wanted to talk about was fines vs. fees. This part was really interesting to contemplate. From the book:
What is the difference between a fine and a fee? It’s worth pondering the distinction. Fines register moral disapproval, whereas fees are simply prices that imply no moral judgment. When we impose a fine for littering, we’re saying that littering is wrong… It reflects a bad attitude that we as society want to discourage. Suppose the fine is $100 [for littering] and a wealthy hiker decides it’s worth the convenience of not having to carry his empties out of the park. He treats the fine as a fee and tosses his beer cans into the Grand Canyon. Even though he pays up, we consider that he’s done something wrong. By treating the Grand Canyon as a dumpster, he has failed to appreciate it in an appropriate way.
Sandel goes on to talk about how this fines vs. fees attitude can also be applied to disabled parking spaces, speeding, the subway/metro, renting videos, and many others. I found this discussion especially interesting because of the moral-ness to it. When one is creating fines, one is (whether one means to or not) using morals. We don’t think it’s morally right to litter and that’s why there’s a fine for littering. Paying to park your car in a garage is a fee.
There’s one more passage that I think was really important to remember from this chapter:
But why does this mean that moral philosophy must enter the picture? For the following reason:
Where markets erode nonmarket norms, the economist (or someone) has to decide whether this represents a loss worth caring about… The answer will vary from case to case. But the question carries us beyond predicting whether a financial incentive will work. It requires that we make a moral assessment: What is the moral importance of the attitudes and norms that money may erode or crowd out?
This article originally appeared on Jeremiah Stanghini and has been republished with permission.