The Consequences of No Consequences

It is a basic principle of human behavior that incentives matter. If people have an incentive to do X and we reduce the adverse consequences of doing X, then more people will do X. People who think that crime is somehow exempt from this principle, and that we can therefore reduce or eliminate consequences with no increase in crime, are living in fantasy land.

The latest example comes to us from the nation’s capital, noted in this editorial in the WSJ. People have an obvious incentive to ride buses without paying. If you shrink the consequences of doing that to almost nothing, will more people do it, draining revenue from an already under-funded system?

The Metro transit authority says free riders are committing a criminal offense if they’re in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs that surround the capital. But some four years ago, the D.C. City Council decriminalized fare evasion over a mayoral veto. Within city limits, fare dodgers face a mere $50 civil citation. In the old days they might have been staring down a $300 fine and 10 days in jail.

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Halfway through fiscal 2022, riders had skipped payment on some nine million bus trips, or 34%. Compare that to fiscal 2018, when riders evaded fare on 9% of bus rides. Yet transit police took enforcement actions against only 297 fare dodgers in 2021, down from more than 12,000 in 2018.

Is anyone surprised? No one with sense, for sure.

“Proponents of decriminalization say fare evasion is a victimless crime….” What utter nonsense. Everyone who pays taxes to a government that subsidizes the system is a victim. Everyone who uses the system is a victim.

There are lots of good reasons for a large metropolitan area like the D.C region to have a safe, reliable, efficient system of public transportation. Fare dodgers jeopardize that system. There are, of course, people who need this transportation and can’t afford even the modest fare, but that is a problem to be dealt with as a welfare issue, providing subsidies to people with demonstrated needs. Effectively legalizing theft of service is a crackpot idea.

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