One of the most important bulwarks of a just society is equal justice under law. That principle is even etched in stone above the entrance to the Supreme Court.
My belief in equal treatment is one of the reasons I support the flat tax. As an economist, I like the pro-growth impact of tax reform. But as someone who believes in justice, I also support the flat tax because I don’t like class warfare policies that punish some taxpayers and corrupt loopholes that give preferential status to other taxpayers.
Indeed, my support for equality of law is so strong that I even object to policies that benefit me, such as special TSA lines in airports for frequent flyers.
But sometimes it’s not clear how a principle should be applied. So let’s revive the “you be the judge” series, which asks thorny questions about the workings of a free society, and explore the case of income-based traffic fines.
Check out these excerpts from a BBC story.
Finland’s speeding fines are linked to income, with penalties calculated on daily earnings, meaning high earners get hit with bigger penalties for breaking the law. So, when businessman Reima Kuisla was caught doing 103km/h (64mph) in an area where the speed limit is 80km/h (50mph), authorities turned to his 2013 tax return, the Iltalehti newspaper reports. He earned 6.5m euros (£4.72m) that year, so was told to hand over 54,000 euros. …Mr Kuisla might be grateful he doesn’t earn more. In 2002, an executive at Nokia was slapped with a 116,000-euro fine for speeding on his Harley Davidson motorbike. His penalty was based on a salary of 14m euros.
So, is this a case of greedy government targeting people for the sin of success?
Well, I’m sure the government is greedy, but what about the morality of income-based fines? The driver isn’t happy, but others argue that deterrence doesn’t work unless the actual impact of the fine is the same for rich and poor alike.
The scale of the fine hasn’t gone down well with Mr Kuisla. “Ten years ago I wouldn’t have believed that I would seriously consider moving abroad,” he says on his Facebook page. “Finland is impossible to live in for certain kinds of people who have high incomes and wealth.” There’s little sympathy from his fellow Finns on social media. …person says: “Small fines won’t deter the rich – fines have to ‘bite’ everyone the same way.”
At the risk of sounding like a soft-headed leftist, I’m not overly sympathetic to Mr. Kuisla’s position. Simply stated, if the goal of traffic fines is deterrence, then the penalties should vary with income.
I remember when I was young, living on a paycheck-to-paycheck basis, a traffic fine sometimes would chew up a non-trivial part of my disposable income. That affected my behavior.
Now that I’m older and making more money (and especially since my kids are mostly done with their schooling!), a traffic fine is just a nuisance (though I still sometimes get very upset).
Though this discussion wouldn’t be complete without also considering the fact that traffic laws and enforcement oftentimes are motivated by revenue rather than safety.
The most compelling evidence comes from Ferguson, Missouri. It seems that what’s driving the mistreatment of black people is government greed.
Here’s some of what Ian Tuttle wrote on the topic for National Review.
The Department of Justice’s “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department,” released this week…what the material in the report reveals is less a culture of racial animus than one of predatory government: “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices,” states the report, “are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.” …myriad municipal regulations that, rigorously enforced, nickel-and-dime the citizenry to the local government’s benefit. This is the injustice on which the Justice Department has stumbled, which helps to explain the city’s racial tensions — and which merits urgent correction.
I fully understand why many blacks in Ferguson are angry.
Imagine if you had a modest income and you were constantly being hit with $50 and $100 fines (oftentimes then made much larger thanks to the scam of “court fees”).
This can wreck a family’s budget when it doesn’t have much money. So wouldn’t you be upset?
Particularly since “predatory government” is a very good description of the Ferguson bureaucracy.
In 2010, the city’s finance director encouraged Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson to “ramp up” ticket-writing to help mitigate an anticipated sales-tax shortfall. …One stop can yield six or eight citations, and officers have been known to compete to set single-stop records. Indeed, within Ferguson Police Department, because opportunities for promotion have been tied to “productivity” — that is, enthusiasm for ticket-writing — officers have perverse incentives to issue citations, and in concert with police and prosecutors, municipal courts regularly enforce the payment of fines in a way that compounds what a single defendant owes.
Now let’s connect Ferguson with Finland.
Our Finnish driver is upset by his giant fine, but at least he probably can relate to the poor people of Ferguson.
But the more successful people of Ferguson, to the extent that they are even targeted by the local cops, have almost nothing to worry about.
…this practice — of police and prosecutors and courts together — disproportionately affects black communities not because they are black, but because they are poor. They do not have the means to escape the justice apparatus, unlike the comparatively wealthy, who can pay a fine and be done with the matter — or hire an attorney, and inconvenience courts that prefer the ease of collecting fees to the challenge of arbitrating cases.
Here’s the bottom line.
If we want a just society, there should be few laws and they should be enforced on the basis of protecting public safety rather than enriching the bureaucracy.
In such a system, income-based fines and penalties are a reasonable way of making sure deterrence applies equally to rich and poor.
Unfortunately, we have far too many laws and they are used as back-door taxes on the citizenry.
So if we adopt income-based fines, the politicians will simply have more money to spend and even less incentive to scale back excessive and thuggish government.
Heck, just look at how asset-forfeiture laws and money-laundering laws have turned into revenue scams for Leviathan.
P.S. Since today’s post ended with a depressing conclusion, let’s share some a bit of offsetting good news.
As reported by The Hill, the spirit of civil disobedience lives even in Washington!
From sledding to snowball fights, dozens of children and their parents took to Capitol Hill Thursday afternoon to protest a controversial sledding ban. Capitol Police have refused to lift the sledding ban, but some parents organized a “sled in” on the west lawn of the Capitol to put a spotlight on the unpopular rule. …Capitol Police pointed out that more than 20,000 sledding injuries occur in the U.S. each year…, but officers on the ground also refused to enforce it. …It’s turning into a public relations nightmare for those who oppose sledding and support the ban.
You’ll doubtlessly be horrified to learn that illegal sledding is – gasp! – a gateway crime to other forms of misbehavior.
…the children were not only sledding but also climbing trees, building snowmen and throwing snowballs at one another.
Oh My God, unlicensed snowmen, unregistered tree climbing, and illegal snowballs! Freedom is obviously too dangerous.
Next thing you know, these kids will grow up to engage in other forms of civil disobedience, just like Arizona drivers and Connecticut gun owners.