Pay the Poor to Be Citizens
A 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 illegalpreempted 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.