Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Punishment or deterrence?

All human societies need a system of rules and need to enforce those rules. But approaches to setting and enforcing rules differ. One approach is to maximise social solidarity – to ensure buy-in from all members and work largely through persuasion. An alternative is authoritarianism, where transgressors are harshly punished and where those punishments are intended to deter others from transgressing in future. In practice, the differences are not so clear-cut – real human societies operate somewhere in between those extremes and invariably contain advocates of both approaches.
The coronavirus pandemic seems to have brought out an authoritarian streak in Wales as in the rest of the UK, with even those politicians whom I would instinctively have expected to support an approach based primarily on persuasion and social solidarity apparently baying for police crackdowns and harsher penalties. In the face of hard reality, the differences between those who claim to be on the political ‘right’ and those who claim to be on the political ‘left’ turn out to be less significant than I would have expected. It’s not clear to me what the purpose of higher fines would be – acting as a deterrent is the obvious motive but the rhetoric sounds much more like a desire to punish those who don’t comply. Whether higher fines would act as a deterrent is a moot point anyway; for the scale of the punishment to discourage a particular act depends on an assumption that the person considering committing such an act carefully weighs up the pros and cons first – and to the extent that he or she does that, the calculation of the probability of getting caught is likely to be at least as significant as the amount of any potential fine. For all the publicity given to a few exceptional cases, I suspect that the probability of getting caught is quite low, and that those ignoring the rules know that.
There are those who doubt that we need the restrictions on movement at all but I am not among them. I accept that the best route to controlling the pandemic lies in placing restrictions on our lives for the short term, and I accept the concomitant necessity for some form of enforcement. But where are the traditional advocates of persuasion and social solidarity in all this? It feels as though many have simply given up and joined the lynch mobs.

1 comment:

dafis said...

Any decision regarding "deterrence" or "punishment" has to have regard to the attitudes of those most likely to offend. In the context of Covid we are not dealing with a "normal" criminal situation. I would argue that we are dealing with a psychological issue, or issues, many revolving around the almost juvenile need for instant gratification. In such situations to avoid repetition of the offence the tools used to commit the offence have to be removed i.e vehicles. It then becomes a matter of choice -do we remove the vehicle temporarily, say for the duration of crisis, or permanently as a form of punishment ?

Only other viable alternative is to shame the offenders in some way. I am not an expert on that aspect but have read elsewhere that popping them into the local tarring and feathering facility creates a fairly long term impression !

Many other options are an improvement on a derisory fine or a verbal warning.