Deep Thoughts: Per-Capita Taxes, Fines, and Flat Fees

I’ve been thinking lately about money, justice, and the tendency in our society to assign flat rates to goods and services.   Although we don’t normally think about it, it’s pretty much par for the course; it’s too difficult (and in some circumstances, illegal) for, say, a store to charge each customer a different price.  If you and I shop at the same store and buy the same thing, we will pay the same amount.  (Well, that’s not necessarily true; there are any number of reasons why we might pay different amounts, from coupons to sales to membership in store organizations.  Still, if you and I are charged different amounts, there’s usually a clear reason why.)

This is generally considered a good thing.  If you want something that costs $X, you need to provide $X in order to fund it.  In some cases, this means that you need to rearrange your financial situation so you can spend that money.  Nobody will make the argument that you DESERVE to buy whatever you want at a low enough price for you to afford.  For retail purchases, this just doesn’t make sense.

On the Other Hand…

But what’s good for goods and services offered by companies may not be good for money that you HAVE to pay.  There are, for many offenses from traffic violations to littering, set fines that must be rendered to the police if you are caught.  I’m not going to argue that illegal activity should not be punished; sadly, there are more than a few individuals out there who only keep their behavior within acceptable parameters due to such threats of punishment.  Having some sort of punishment for offenses should be a part of our justice system.

Much the same can said about the family swear jar; the more you can afford to swear, the more you are likely to swear.

My concern is this: there are, with many crimes, maximum fine limits set out.  As with the concept of having a fine in the first place, the logic behind this is pretty noble: you don’t want the courts to have free reign to impose any penalty they would like on any crime.  If you did that, all it takes is one corrupt courtroom to take the hard-earned money from numerous people.

My qualm is this: having an upper fine limit and fixed fines for offenses means that the lower your income, the higher a portion of your income you will end up paying for a given offense.  A $500 littering fee could be 5% of a $10,000 a year earner (and the difference between eating decently for a month or going hungry), but only 0.05% of a $1 million a year earner’s income.  Which person is more likely to never litter?

While we’re on the subject of flat fees, there’s also the issue of per capita taxes.  Similar to fines, these are paid as a flat amount per person.  Unlike fines though, they don’t depend on the payer doing something illegal, but are paid every year (or more often, depending on how your tax system is structured).  They suffer from the same issue, though; the less you earn, the higher the portion of your income that goes toward taxes.  While these taxes tend to be rather small (my hometown, for one example, charges $10 per person, or did so the last time that I had to pay for it), they still cost more as a portion of total income the lower that said income is.

My Thoughts

My whole reason for bringing all this up is to note that sometimes, what works in one area of our social interactions (in this case, retail sales) might not be the best in other areas of our lives (like taxes and fines).  While nobody (or at the least, not me) will argue that the amount you pay for goods and services should be tied to the amount you earn, I would argue that taxes and fines should be tied to what you are able to afford.  The difference is the issue of choice; you have no (direct) choice over the taxes or fines you pay (you can, of course, vote for those who promise to cut down on fines and taxes, although how well that will work is an open question), but you can choose how to spend (or, wacky thought, save) your money.  That difference, in my opinion, should be enough to treat those types of expenditures much differently when it comes to allowances for earning levels.

What are your thoughts on fines and per-capita taxes?  Is it better to try to tailor the amounts owed to what people can pay, or simply charge a flat amount?

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