Of course, for this hypothetical example to have an acceptable degree of relevance, a distinction must be made between highly probable consequences and merely contingent consequences. It is highly probable that a greater application of the norm will generate a change of behavior on the part of the public and that this will translate into fewer infractions. However, the fact that this lower number of infringements produces a relatively negative tax collection result is a matter of fact on which no nexus of necessity or probability can be predicated. An increase in the levels of regulatory application may result in an increase, in a reduction or neutral to the collection purposes, the final result depending on a multiplicity of circumstances. Notwithstanding this, the mere possibility of having a collection failure already represents a negative incentive for the government that is considering investing resources in increasing the degree of application of the regulations.
Another means of increasing the deterrent power of traffic regulations without incurring the costs of greater supervision of the streets and enforcement of fines is the expeditious solution of maintaining the level of regulatory enforcement but increasing the face value of the penalty. If with an application level of 1%, a fine of $1,000 – generates the same conditioning of conduct as a fine of $10, – with a 100% probability of application, then it is expected that the same fine will be increased to $80,000 obtain the same deterrent result as a fine of $1,000 – with 80% application. Thus, the government would obtain the same behavioral results of raising the level of regulatory enforcement without investing any additional resources, beyond the announcement of the new fines. Furthermore: if in fact the behavior modification were not so successful, since the level of infractions did not drop as expected, then the government would obtain a collection award, since they would mean an increase in its income from fines.
Thus, we see how, in terms of collection costs and benefits, faced with the dilemma between increasing the level of application of the rules or increasing the value of punishments (years in prison, fines or compensation in favor of third parties), incentives operate so that the governments decide for the latter type of solutions. Moreover, a low level of normative application generates the social unrest typical of any system of coexistence rules that does not work, which leads, in a kind of positive feedback mechanism, to a demand for an increase in the severity of the punishments. It is for this reason that, when there is evidence of a low level of regulatory compliance, governments find themselves in a trap, since the very dynamics of incentives induce them to increase the severity of sanctions instead of increasing the level of enforcement of the law.
However, although the behavioral effects of both models (low punishments with high application vs. high punishments with low application) could be quantitatively similar, they are not similar in terms of long-term social and political dynamics: societies with a High law enforcement tends to be democratic and liberal while low law enforcement societies tend to be opaque and authoritarian. The biggest trap that both governments and civil society can fall into is to attribute the consequences of low regulatory enforcement to cultural factors. Such a culturalist explanation definitively closes off any possibility of finding a reasonable solution and avoiding the trap of systematically increasing levels of authoritarianism.
This tendency to increase authoritarianism on the part of governments and societies manifests itself at various levels. One of them is the aforementioned increase in prohibitions and punishments. But another factor of authoritarianism is also represented by the wide margin of discretion that a low level of law enforcement grants to governments, since they are empowered to raise said levels of application at their own will.
To continue with the example with which the exhibition has been illustrated, although a fine for passing a red light of $80,000 that has an application of 1% is experienced by the population as a fine of $800 – with 100% application, nothing prevents the government from deciding to activate a mechanism for the control of infractions that raise the application to 50%, for putting a case, which means having fines of $40,000 in practice.
[Editor’s note: this is Part 7 in a 12-part essay; you can read Part 6 here or read the essay in its entirety here.]