A couple of weeks ago New York Times writer Neil Irwin wrote a piece in the Business Section about why a nation with our wealth is reluctant to ask for more from its richest citizens. Some of the reasons given included: low taxes encourage greater investment and entrepreneurship; the rich have grown accustomed to their income and have built their lives around it, a situation that should not be disturbed; redistribution of wealth downward is too much socialism; and it’s unclear who the rich really are and what population would benefit from upping their taxes. Polls showed that older people, including recipients of Social Security and Medicare, were especially concerned about the cut-off limit for increased taxation, and more importantly, which population might profit.
Then there was a report from Finland, a country that clearly lacks our adulation of the wealthy. In it we learn that Finland’s court system imposes proportional punishment on its traffic law violators. The bottom line thinking is that a person of average means can suffer a crushing traffic violation fine that could be equal to his monthly mortgage or rent payment or the cost of feeding his family for a month, while applying this fixed fine amount to a wealthy violator might equal what he pays for a haircut or a bottle of imported wine. If the fines are intended to correct dangerous driving behavior, their effects are certainly unequal. Therefore, the Finnish conduct an ability-to-pay review for their offenders, and the magistrates impose the fees accordingly.
Yes, there are process issues involved in this fining system, such as who carries out the income evaluations and under what guidelines and at what cost? But putting those aside, consider the benefits to the offenders, yes, the offenders, and the community.
- Wealthy offenders get the message and think twice about trouncing the gas pedal, making them less likely to endanger themselves and others.
- Wealthy offenders hand over their proportional fines with the knowledge that the community they threatened with their dangerous driving behavior will realize a modest benefit from it. Their fines will be sufficiently high to be an actual atonement and not what is roughly equal to the casual gratuity dropped in the attendant’s basket in the restroom.
- Additional revenue to cities and towns would support their service delivery. Some of our cities earmark traffic fines to partially cover their court’s administrative costs, pay for public library operations and other items determined by their local governments.
- Community roads would become safer with proportional fines in place.
Of course the thought of such a system in the U. S. would have the wealthy crying foul and there would be the choral screeching of “socialism”, but the fine system is not an extension of socialist practices involving assessments of taxation on one group to give to another. It is a voluntary system based on the driver’s choice to violate the law and is more consistent with the penalties imposed in criminal law where sentences are theoretically consistent irrespective of the financial means of those convicted.
Finally, while it’s unlikely this concept would take hold in a nation that believes “greed is good” and “government is bad,” there is a chance that putting the idea out there for local implementation just might encourage the wealthy to create more jobs by hiring more personal drivers in order to protect their wealth from fines. Implementation could be a win either way.