Pay the Poor to Be Citizens

money.jpgA colleague suggests that there might be a relationship between a series of seemingly random observations:

  • A sudanese cell-phone billionaire announced a prize for good governance, to be awarded to current African leaders when they step down from office. According to news reports, “each leader awarded the prize will receive $5 million spread over 10 years after leaving office. If still alive when the initial prize is exhausted, prize-winners will receive another $200,000 annually until they die.”
  • The Arizona Voter Reward Act, which would establish a $1,000,000 prize whose proceeds would go to a randomly-selected voter, is on November 7th’s ballot. The state’s Chamber of Commerce is opposed: Harvard’s Info/Law project is more open minded. Most think the law would be plainly illegal preempted by federal law even if passed.
  • Jury pay rates are embarassingly low, if meant to be compensatory. Some jurisdictions are funding pilot projects to study if pay raises will increase compliance with jury service.

Here is the question for debate: is there any meaningful way to distinguish the African prize (which many legal commentators no doubt would celebrate) from the voting and jury service problems? Or, more provocatively, are the powerful the only people who we will allow to make money from being good citizens?

The law of governance (both the regulation of the governors and the governed) has long resisted the idea that ordinary people wearing their civic-actor roles ought to be amenable to monetary incentives. Perhaps this intuition arose from antiquity, where service to the state was by the rich, who (in the ideal) owed a duty arising from their class status to participate in government. Recurring political kerfuffles on judicial and legislative pay suggest that for many citizens, the commodification of civic service remains unpleasant. But that view of civic engagement is problematic, especially where society’s commitment to civic virtue is no longer backed up by effective enforcement, and the habits of civic engagement are in decline. As a normative matter, I have trouble understanding why carrots are unavailable to citizens who vote or serve on juries, but given without question to legislators who work (or despots who don’t).

The main objection I’ve heard is that we don’t want people who don’t care enough about the relevant issues to participate. This sounds quite a bit like the case against champerty, or paying clients to bring suit. As Steve Bainbridge observed, the champerty allegations against Milberg might boil down to an economic argument that champerty encourages nuisance lawsuits, which are socially wasteful. But it is not clear to me that voting can ever be wasteful. The process of voting is usually accompanied by certain formalities that caution, channel, and evidence its importance (to steal a line from Fuller). People who vote are probably more likely to view themselves as social stakeholders – just like folks who sign petitions and then associate themselves with their contents.

I’ve also heard the view expressed that even if we think payments are normatively acceptable, lotteries are a bad mechanism to increase turnout. The literature suggests that folks prefer certain gains to uncertain ones, therefore, the argument goes, shouldn’t we simply pay people, say, $5.00 to vote?

I doubt it. Large probabilities are difficult to calculate – and it seems likely that optimistic citizens will usually overestimate their chances of winning the election lottery, therefore their expected return on voting will be higher than in the case of a certain wage. It is also true that payment-through-lottery may smell less objectionable to those who think that civic duties ought not be compensated. Lotteries, after all, were the thin edge of the gambling revolution.

I will say, however, that if we’re to properly motivate leaders in Africa to retire at the end of their terms, the sums involved would have to be significantly larger. A depressing list, presented to the Senate, estimates the cash available to enterprising strongmen:

* General Sani Abacha of Nigeria: $20 billion

* President Félix Houphoüet-Boigny of Ivory Coast: $6 billion

* General Ibrahim Babangida of Nigeria: $5 billion

* President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire: $4 billion

* President Mousa Traore of Mali: $2 billion

* President Henri Bedie of Ivory Coast: $300 million

* President Denis N’guesso of Congo: $200 million

* President Omar Bongo of Gabon: $80 million

* President Paul Biya of Cameroon: $70 million

* President Haile Mariam of Ethiopia: $30 million

Given these opportunities, a $5,000,000 prize looks tiny. Better, under such circumstances, to take out our bundle of sticks.

You may also like...

3 Responses

  1. Jim says:

    How can a “law” be illegal if “passed”? Do you mean unconstitutional? If so, is that due to conflict with federal law -, e.g. Art 1, section 4, or with Arizona law governing the Initiative? I must admit I have never heard of the concept of illegal laws!

  2. Someone Who Should Be Asleep says:

    As I understand the African proposal, it seeks to avoid the erosion of democracy by bribing would-be authoritarian kleptocrats to leave office instead of consolidating their power. This enables a given African nation to continue its democratic process rather than enduring a period of dictatorial rule which then gives way to military coup and ethnic strife and eventual restoration of democracy at great cost to the nation and its population. That is, democracy as a whole in the country is preserved by targeting income transfers to specific individuals prone to destroy democratic institutions for the sake of avarice.

    The Arizonan proposal, by contrast, appears geared to boost turnout in uninteresting elections by randomly assigning a prize to a voter. Who wins the prize is irrelevant. Democratic institutions per se are not at stake. What is at stake is a hypothetical increase in turnout generated by the lure of lottery winnings. In other words, the goal of the Arizona proposal is of a lesser order of magnitude. For that reason it may be less justifiable.

    Then again, I heard over the radio about a proposal in a Latin American country to pay poor families for their children’s attendance at school. The program’s critics had predicted the creation of a culture of dependence, and warned of poor recipients of ‘attendance checks’ driving down the country’s productivity. Contrary to the critical alarums, the proposal’s primary effect was to drive children out of work into school. In other words, the parents worked the same amount (or more) and the children quit working and went to school instead of cutting school in order to work and contribute to their family’s standard of living. The standard of living of the family as a whole remained constant, the school attendance of the poor went up, and the losses in productivity in the black market (of child labor) was (at least) offset by the productivity of children studying and learning. This is only a long-winded way of conceding the Arizona proposal may be of lesser magnitude than the African proposal and yet still have sufficient justification.

    I am inclined to think the Arizona proposal is good. I tend to think proposals like the Arizona one are much better than tax cuts, which serve to disgorge the government coffers and reduce pork spending, but are usually regressive, because in a progressive tax system the top earners pay the top rates and so receive the larger share of a tax cut. The Arizona proposal would still disgorge the government coffers without wasting cash on pork, but the benefit of the cut can reach any citizen engaged in a civic act that the public values. For that reason I am inclined to believe voter participation, serving on juries, parents attending school board meetings, residents attending community board meetings, earning very high grades in a public school, and winning state-run competitions (for instance, statewide prizes for scientific discoveries, or even for a statewide debate competition for all high school students) should be rewarded by hefty sums. Tax write-offs for First Amendment activities of public concern outside of one’s official job duties, to be broad, contributing to the public discourse, would in my view should be implemented. I would also support jacking up fines for negative behavior, e.g., littering, adding to traffic congestion, etc., to the point where getting caught for parking on the wrong side of the street has real impact. Moreover, I would prefer almost all fines to have a qui tam aspect to them, so that telling on your neighbor for not recycling would earn one a profit. I tend to believe our overall tax burden would be lower because citizens would engage in less of the uncivilized behavior that requires government intervention. As for government compulsion in-line with this view, I see no reason not to withhold high school diplomas from students who have not by graduation time visited every museum in their local area at least twice (on their own time) and attended at least x-number of designated civic events, e.g., political debates, public concerts, and other events subsidized by the government.

    Most controversially, I would propose free broadband access (a worthy government expenditure with wide and deep wealth effects) and provide a tax credit to any households without any television or video game consoles but with a computer and at least one child. (And if anyone says it’s impossible to administer, please take into account that we already have child care credits and Britain has a television licensing regime that tosses blokes in jail.)

    The last thing I’d do if I were czar for the day is write into the eligibility requirements for taking any public office in the state that the elected candidate participated in at least six televised debates around the state (or municipality) of at least 90 minutes in length. The particular language could be hammered out, as one might want to be particularly sensitive to dating the provision by specifying the usage of certain technology to “televise” or “broadcast” the debates, and one might not want fringe candidates without any public support to claim they had a right to appear in a debate to avoid the impossibility of taking office if by random chance they win without having debated, but the point is it would prevent candidates from ducking their civic responsibility to ventilate the issues of the day to the public at-large.

  3. skeptical populist says:

    Hmmm, I wonder why the AZ Chamber of commerce might be opposed to the incentive. Maybe because it’ll get poor voters to the polls?