I’ve already made my feelings about most uses of “incentives” by technocratic planners fairly plain, and besides, I’m just really at best a handmaiden on this point for my colleagues Ken Sharpe and Barry Schwartz, who make the argument more elegantly. (And a bunch of other thinkers besides.)
Still, there’s always another reason to harp on this point. Say, for example, parking policy at a certain small liberal-arts college west of Philadelphia. Parking is pretty much the classic case of a “first world problem” so it feels a bit embarrassing to take it too seriously. Almost any issue, however, can illustrate the characteristic style of a certain kind of institutional or managerial thought as it approaches any problem, small or large.
So what are the “problems” with parking at this little college?
1. Not everybody observes the minimal rules that are supposed to govern parking. For example, there are choice spaces reserved for visitors to Admissions that on an average day are filled with the cars of students and even a few employees. I’ve frequently watched students I know park in those spaces and give me a shit-eating grin if they see me seeing them. They’re not parking there because the lot is out of spaces, they’re parking there so they don’t have to walk an extra 75 feet or so.
2. Every once in a while we run out of spaces completely, but not very often.
So far this does NOT really seem like a problem. #1 is only the very small problem that there are a few assholes around, which seems both not a big deal and unsolvable anyway.
3. We’re about to do a bunch of construction and there will be way fewer spaces for a long time even if we build a new parking facility in the process (which some people don’t think we should do for various reasons).
4. We would like to reduce our carbon footprint, and one way to do that is to get fewer people to drive to work.
Ok, 3 and 4 are genuine issues, but they’re really different kinds of issues.
On #3, why not just tell people, “Hey, fewer spaces! Sorry!” Well, because people will still drive and they will park in the surrounding neighborhoods, which have a limited street capacity plus this will badly annoy local residents.
Ok, why not just ration parking permits according to some scheme? Say, if you live further than 2 miles, aren’t near public transport, have small children, are pregnant or are disabled, you get one, and not if you don’t? Ok. But it won’t work if you don’t enforce permit parking, which we don’t really do much right now. Stepped-up enforcement isn’t just a matter of writing a few more tickets.
On #4, why not just persuade people, “Hey, save the planet, try walking or biking?” Well, this is already a pretty liberal place with plenty of exposure to that line of argument, so if people are still driving either they don’t take that argument very seriously or they feel there is something else more important about having access to a car. Or there’s something that makes walking or biking very hard. (There is, if you’re coming from west of the campus: all of the roads have no shoulders for bike riders and no sidewalks for walkers, plus there’s a major interstate in the way and a creek valley.)
So now what? You have three choices at this point: a) just do your construction and let whatever happens happens, same for the environment and sustainability; b) Ration parking permits, pay for enforcement, do your best to convince people to be do-gooders and maybe try to invest in more bikable/walkable connections to campus; c) use the magic power of the INCENTIVE!!!
Guess which option some consultants came up with? Yes, that’s right, get people to properly value parking in a suburban lot by charging them for parking because we all know that if you properly price things some sort of automagic utility rational choice dingus thingy kicks in and people behave the way they ought to behave. Just to make sure it’s all working right, since this is a college, we need to charge for parking and then create a Parking Advisory Committee, because faculty and staff don’t really rationally choose their maximum utility unless they get to have a participatory committee which can earnestly deliberate about the color of the paint on the parking spaces and whether the people giving out tickets should be called “Sustainability Contributors” or “Mobility Facilitators”. Participatory inclusive incentives!
You can see just how the thinking runs, just what the conversations must have been like. (No actual parking consultants were harmed in the making of this film. Offer void where prohibited.)
Rationing is too hard to do as a command exercise, too many people will protest, it’ll be too hard to be fair to people with genuine needs, let alone those who simply want to drive. Let’s get people to ration for themselves: if we put a price tag on it, only those who really have need will pay for it.
Not enough people really care about sustainability the way that they should! We’ve been trying for so long to get them to care but they just won’t! There must be something wrong with them. We’ll never persuade them with words and ideas. We can fix that by putting a price on it!
If you’ve been around long enough, you also know where this goes next.
Too many people are still trying to park! We’re crowding into the surrounding neighborhood AND we’re still destroying the planet! We’ll have to raise the price until we’ve ‘properly’ set it so that people will rationally decide to do what we know they should do.
Now they’re getting really mad about the price! We need the Parking Advisory Committee to do a study. Maybe hire a consultant again.
In general, despite the seeming impact of policies like congestion pricing in London, life does not really work out as it does in a Malcolm Gladwell book. Because even in general, most people know what the incentive is trying to get them to do, and they even know that the whole apparatus is like one of the humane chutes that Temple Grandin designed for cattle butcheries. Unlike cattle, they’re not soothed by technocratic chutes: they get more and more agitated as the kill floor approaches, particularly when they get a glimpse of someone in a white coat with a checklist observing the incentive machine in action. People have more agency than cows, and if there’s anything that mobilizes them to perverse or unpredictable ends, it’s the sense that they’re being made to do something by someone who thinks that people are too stupid to even notice they’re being made to do something.
This goes over even less well when many of the people in question have Ph.Ds., both because they dislike even more the sense that they’re being maneuvered and because many of them understand full well the intellectual background behind trying to create social outcomes through proper pricing.
Technocrats and managers turn to incentives when they lack the political will to dictate an outcome or when they believe that people aren’t doing what they ought to be doing for their own good. Or as in this case, both. The former is somewhat understandable, particularly in institutions that otherwise have relatively flat or soft hierarchies. The latter is almost never a good idea. You can raise a tax, charge a fee, create a penalty when you’ve straightforwardly won an argument about what is good and not good, when you’re doing a lot of other things to persuade people. Say, in raising fees on tobacco: that wasn’t done in isolation from a broad campaign to persuade smokers and non-smokers about the consequences of smoking. You can’t do it as a substitute for winning the argument, or as a cheap way to win an argument that would otherwise incur some more expensive obligations. If, for example, you want people to drive less for environmental reasons, you have to seriously look at the reasons why they aren’t doing so already, and not just use an incentive as a way to automagically devalue and dismiss those forms of reasoning.