Rewards. That’s the newest game in Washington D.C. Almost simultaneously John McCain and the Census Bureau came up with clever ideas to make the U.S.A. a better place. The Census Bureau would like for more people to fill out their forms and John McCain would like for someone to invent a really good car battery. Both have concluded that the secret is to offer rewards. Both are great ideas. Before explaining the Census Bureau idea, however, a bit of history is necessary.
Laws are usually enforced by punishing those who refuse to obey them. If a person enters a bank and makes a withdrawal using a gun instead of a withdrawal slip that person is, if caught, prosecuted and if convicted, sent to prison. People who refuse to obey traffic laws receive a ticket and if found guilty, are fined and under some circumstances, sent to jail. These are, of course, just two examples of how compliance with laws is encouraged in this country. There has never been, until now, a suggestion that people who do not break the law should be rewarded for their good behavior.
The United States Constitution requires that a census be taken every 10 years pursuant to laws enacted by Congress. Congress has determined that citizens must respond to forms they receive so that the census can be properly completed. Many people refuse to complete and return the forms and Congress and the Census Bureau have been trying to figure out how to get people to comply with the law. If the traditional approach were used, criminal sanctions would be imposed on those who refuse to obey the law. (Those who refuse to file income tax returns can explain how that works.) To address the problem of non-compliance in returning census forms, however, Congress and the Census Bureau are considering a solution that is thrilling in its simplicity. They have concluded it is more cost efficient to offer incentives to those who comply with the law than to prosecute those who don’t.
Among the rewards considered prior to the 2000 census was having some kind of sweepstakes. That idea has resurfaced and a $1 million prize has been suggested. That amount seems a bit on the penurious side, given the fact that there are close to 300 million people living in this country. They could easily triple that without adversely affecting the budget.
Rewarding those who comply with the census law is, of course, just a first step in reforming our justice system. If encouraging compliance with the law by the use of rewards instead of punishments catches on, other proposals equally attractive will almost certainly follow. The money needed to pay those who abide by the law can be found in money saved by not having to build and staff prisons. Once we have established the appropriate reward for the citizen who returns the census form, it will be necessary to determine the appropriate rewards for those who do not break other laws of which the following are merely suggestions.
Those who do not break any traffic laws during a given year may be rewarded by being entered into a lottery for a modest sum. Those from families with criminal proclivities who do not, for example, rob any banks, would be entered in lotteries with considerably higher rewards since the level of the reward should be commensurate with the level of the foregone criminal activity. Offering money as an incentive to forego criminal activity is no less imaginative than is John McCain’s suggestion on how to encourage creativity.
Mr. McCain has suggested that the government (which most Republicans believe should stay out of people’s lives unless it is chasing terrorists on private phone lines or e-mails or determining what women should do with their bodies) , should offer incentives for creativity. He has suggested that taxpayers offer a $300 million prize to whoever builds what he refers to as “a better car battery,” one that “has the size, capacity, cost and power to leapfrog the commercially available plug-in hybrids or electric cars.” He wants, said he, to “inspire the ingenuity and resolve of the American people.” Until those words were spoken, few, if any citizens, realized that it was the prospect of a taxpayer reward that inspired creativity. Most people thought that the truly creative among us such as Bill Gates, believed their rewards were to be found in the satisfaction of a job well done and the profits that followed the commercial success of their inventions. Mr. McCain’s comments suggest that he has no confidence in the ingenuity and creativity of the American people unless the federal government steps in and offers them extravagant rewards for their efforts.
Carping aside, everyone would surely agree that both ideas have great merit. If implemented, only time will tell whether rewarding the compliant or the creative will produce better results for society.
CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a lawyer in Boulder, Colorado. He can be reached at: Brauchli.firstname.lastname@example.org.