One of the best political cartoons I’ve ever seen was this gem from Glenn McCoy.
It very effectively captures how greedy local governments breed resentment and create conflict by using the law to fleece residents (and it definitely will be featured if I ever do another political cartoonist contest).
So how do we solve this problem?
Alec Schierenbeck, in a column for the New York Times, argues we should impose much higher fines on rich people.
For people living on the economic margins, even minor offenses can impose crushing financial obligations, trapping them in a cycle of debt and incarceration for nonpayment. …Across America, one-size-fits-all fines are the norm… Other places have saner methods. Finland and Argentina, for example, have tailored fines to income for almost 100 years. The most common model, the “day fine,” scales sanctions to a person’s daily wage. A small offense like littering might cost a fraction of a day’s pay. A serious crime might swallow a month’s paycheck. Everyone pays the same proportion of their income. …Finland…handed a businessman a $67,000 speeding ticket for going 14 miles per hour above the limit.
He argues this is a matter of fairness.
…scaling fines to income is a matter of basic fairness. …The flat fine threatens poor people with financial ruin while letting rich people break the law without meaningful repercussions. Equity requires punishment that is equally felt. …while punishment is supposed to prevent undesirable conduct from happening in the first place, flat fines deter the wealthy less than everyone else. …That’s particularly true in cities like Ferguson that went easy on wealthier residents but treated poor people like cash cows. After all, the city would get more bang for its buck pulling over a rich driver with a blown blinker.
I think Schierenbeck is both right and wrong.
He’s correct that his approach would be more fair. An income-based speeding ticket would be akin to a flat tax – i.e., take the same proportion of everyone’s income. For what it’s worth, I made this argument with regard to traffic offenses back in 2015.
But that approach won’t do anything to help poor people (to be fair, the author doesn’t claim it would).
If we want to protect low-income people from greedy governments, that are several options.
- Have fewer nuisance laws that lead to fines, fees, and charges.
- Have income-based fines, but at a low level for rich and poor alike.
- Perhaps most important, control government spending so politicians have less incentive to grab more money from people.
The bottom line is that I don’t want government to screw over poor people, just as I don’t want government to screw over middle-class people or rich people.
P.S. My point about higher fines on the rich not helping the poor is the same an my argument that class-warfare taxes on upper-income taxpayers don’t do anything to help the less fortunate. Indeed, poor people actually suffer collateral damage because of diminished prosperity.