Since when did everyone expect to get paid to be nice and do the right thing? Look around you, it’s happening as we speak. It’s not new, of course, it’s been going on a for a while. Right from the beginning of time, religion has been promising you good karma, a luxurious after-life with an attached bath, or at least a favourable promotion in the next life as compensation for being nice. That was all fine and good in a slightly abstract way, but the moment doing the right thing started to become worth your while in cold hard cash, we were doomed.
Just a few days ago I was at one of the large hypermarkets in town and saw some examples of this misguided strategy. The shop in question has started charging the customer a small token sum of money for every plastic bag they take at the checkout, to encourage the use of reusable bags. Also, to make it seem like they are doing it purely for the betterment of the environment, they offer you the money for the plastic bags back if you return them for recycling.
Sounds perfectly reasonable on the surface. But think about it. Most people are still going to pay the extra token money for the plastic bag, and consider it a small service charge. Then, very few people are actually going to take the trouble to collect up those specific plastic bags and return them to the shop for recycling. Even if the customer gives in the bags for recycling through other channels, the shop still gets to keep the money for that bag, which while small, is way too much for a single plastic bag produced in the hundreds of thousands. So the shop makes a good profit. Small amounts add up when multiplied by thousands of customers per day. All this rather than switching to more expensive biodegradable bags at their own initial expense, and then charging the customer. That would be really environmentally friendly.
In the same place they also have the system where you need to insert a coin to free a shopping trolley. The coin is returned to you when you deposit the trolley into the correct receptacle in the parking lot. This to prevent people from wandering away with the shopping trolley to carry heavy shopping to their nearby homes. And this is where the flaw in this ‘money saved or given for doing the right thing’ system becomes clear. If you’re living close by, maybe that one lost coin in the shopping trolley is a reasonable service charge to have the convenience of using a trolley to your doorstep, rather than lugging your shopping in many bags, which you also might have paid for.
As soon as you put a monetary value on doing the right thing or being nice, being bad now acquires a cost, which tells the average person that it’s ok to be bad as long as you are willing to bear the cost. It’s ok to use lots of plastic bags when you’re paying for the privilege. It’s ok to kidnap unsupecting shopping trolleys beyond supermarket parking lots when you’re paying for it with a coin. It’s ok to speed dangerously on the highway, as long as you’re willing to pay the fine.
And why not, really? After all, it’s ok to be a polluting industry as long as you are willing to pay for your institutional laziness and irresponsibility with carbon points. How can any of the above examples be considered any different when they are so much more harmless in scale?
Wake up zombie hordes! Being nice or doing the right thing was never meant to be worth your while. You do it because it’s the right thing to do. As soon as you incentivise good behaviour by charging bad behaviour, you are legitimising bad behaviour. When it’s ok to do the wrong thing as long as you pay the price, how can doing the right thing be priceless? And if being nice isn’t priceless to us anymore, then we’re doomed, because even the birds, the animals, and the trees understand that concept, and so much of nature works on that basis. The universe doesn’t do monetary penalties, green incentives, or karma points, it just sees the hand you were dealt and looks at how you dealt with it.