"Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom,” Benjamin Franklin wrote to Abbés Chalut and Arnoux in France during the spring of 1787, as the United States struggled to define itself in the pre-constitutional period. “As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters." The social contract in a society defined by individual liberty required citizens to model respectable behavior, thus reducing the need for collective intervention to maintain the peace.
One has to wonder what Franklin would make of the capital of the country he and his fellow great thinkers founded some two hundred and twenty-nine years later. Rather than rely on the virtue of its citizenry, the city council of Washington DC has chosen to pay for it instead.
The council voted unanimously to implement a program piloted in California to reduce criminal recidivism by paying former convicts not to commit crimes. Normally, the incentive structures run in the other direction – for instance, fines and loss of freedom when convicted of crimes, and civil penalties for violation of regulations on myriad potential offenses from watering lawns on the wrong day to painting houses in an unapproved color. Richmond, California chose to pay ex-cons to comply with the law, and not surprisingly, the program succeeded – at least in the short term.
“In Richmond, 79 percent of "fellows" participating in the program have not been suspected of involvement in any gun crimes since joining the program,” reports the Associated Press, “and 84 percent have not been injured by gunfire, the program's executive director, DeVone Boggan, said in a report to the Council.” During the first eight years of the program, Boggan claimed that homicides in Richmond dropped by 77 percent, but the correlation so far lacks any reproducible connection to causation. Still, the city feels confident enough in these results to recommend it to Washington DC.
How much did it cost the citizens of Richmond to keep violent felons from attacking them? The “stipend” for each “fellow” in compliance can reach $9,000 a year. Bear in mind that this money comes from people who don’t commit crimes – the taxpayers of Richmond. Washington would open the program for up to 200 people a year and set aside $460,000 in annual stipend payments, or roughly $2,300 per person a year if all qualified for the cash prize for good citizenship … or at least for not getting caught.
Crime may not pay, but after-crime certainly will, and not just for the criminals. The city projects the overall cost of the program in its first four years at $4.9 million, even though the total amount of the stipends comes to only $1.84 million in the same period. Sixty-two percent of the funding will go to the bureaucracy necessary for paying ex-cons to obey the law.
The money would be well spent, some argued, because the cost of preventing more victimization pales in comparison to the damage these “fellows” would otherwise cause. Perhaps it might be cost effective in that narrow sense, but the taxpayers who fund a program that sounds curiously similar to a protection racket might wonder if they’re being victimized anyway. Nice community ya got there, folks. Shame if anything happened to it ….
The cash payments point to a fundamental fairness issue, too. If ex-cons get cash for not breaking the law, why shouldn’t everyone get a piece of that action? If people promise not to conduct breaking and entering, why should it take a conviction to get $2300 a year from Uncle Sugar? I’d gladly promise not to commit a violent felony in 2016 if it means I can get my hands on a few thousand dollars. What’s more, my clean record makes me a more reliable risk, too.
And why stick to major crimes? Maybe the government can pay people not to have loud parties. Here in Minnesota, we could pay drivers not to tailgate even when six inches of snow has come down in the last hour. (I’d actually donate to a fund for that one.)
The money is beside the point, however. As Franklin pointed out, liberty is suited for a virtuous people – those who voluntarily operate in good faith within the framework of self-governance. Virtue by its nature cannot be bought. Those who respond to the social contract only on the basis of wealth incentives will only abide by it to the extent that the cash balances out competing incentives.
Furthermore, the moral impact of such programs reward the threat of implied violence by paying cash to hold them temporarily in abeyance. Rather than incentivizing felons to demonstrate rehabilitation, we’re essentially paying them to be dangerous.
Rudyard Kipling put it best in his poem Dane-Geld, the practice of Vikings to extort cities and states to prevent invasions and sackings:
It is always a temptation for a rich and lazy nation,
To puff and look important and to say:
"Though we know we should defeat you, we have not the time to meet you.
We will therefore pay you cash to go away."
And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we've proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.
Either we hold all citizens equally responsible for conducting themselves according to the rule of law, or we pay the Dane-geld. But don’t be surprised when we not only can’t get rid of the Dane, but that we find ourselves hip-deep in them. Such are the consequences for discarding virtue and equal application of the law for shortcuts around the difficult but necessary responsibilities to enforce it – the exact impulse Kipling lamented.