One of my photos

From each according to their ability…

January 12th, 2010 · Posted by Skuds in Life · 2 Comments · Life

I did like what I read in this story from Switzerland.

Basically, a bloke got a speeding ticket and was fined £182,000 for doing 55mph in a 55mph zone.  It might seem a bit harsh, but the amount was decided based on the man’s ability to pay and not the scale of the offence.

Some might think this is a dangerously Marxist policy from those notorious revolutionary lefties in Switzerland, but I think it makes perfect practical sense for two quite connected reasons.

Firstly there is fairness.  I know that if I got a fixed penalty of, say, £100 for something I could shrug it off but I know plenty of people who would struggle to pay that, so if they committed the same offence the effect on us would not be equal at all – they would suffer real hardship and I would not.  Likewise I would feel the pain with a fine of £1000 but I know plenty of people who would have no trouble with that.

Is it fair that a punishment should be different for two individuals commiting the same offence?   Equal fines do not necessarily mean equal punishment if the ability to pay is not taken into account.   Somebody living hand-to-mouth could be totally ruined by what many of us would consider a small amount and so effectively the penalty for even dropping a crisp packet could mean going without food for some people, while a hefty fine for a serious offence can have no impact on others.

The other side of that coin is very practical – incentives.  One purpose of fines is to punish, but another is to act as a deterrent.  If the fine for parking on double yellow lines was 20p would you feel deterred from doing that?  Well for some people a fine of £60 would have as much financial significance for them.

If you are a millionaire faced with a choice of spending time hunting for a legal parking spot or parking in a very convenient disabled bay with a very high chance of a fine it must be tempting to take the hit – time is money after all.

All the examples are motoring-related but could, of course, apply to any sort of offence.

The Swiss system seems to take this into account using judiciary discretion, but maybe more fixed systems would be possible, even if just as guidelines.  Perhaps a fine would not be x number of pounds but x number of points with points getting converted into percentage of income or wealth or something like an index of ability to pay?

Take the supposed £1000 fine for not having a TV licence.  For one person it could represent the value of their TV, car and bank balance combined, while for another it would represent petty cash and would not hurt at all.  If the fine represented the value of their car, TV and bank balance combined then it would have the same effect as both a punishment and a deterrent wouldn’t it?

The obvious flaw is the loophole, especially in many traffic offences, of getting somebody else ( who has less ability to pay) taking the fall for you.  Of course this already happens when people get caught by a speeding camera and get a husband or wife to say they were driving because they can ‘afford’ the points on their licence… but that is an offence already and imagine what the fine would be for that if caught out!

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