When conducting business deals with their fellow private citizens, people basically tend to be honest. Perhaps this is because we all secretly fear retribution and punishment, no matter how unlikely the consequences. Or maybe it’s just that we’re wired to realize that society can’t function if we’re constantly preoccupied with suspicion. Whatever the explanation, the bottom line is this: When you purchase something from a stranger, you can be reasonably certain that he or she will make good on their obligations.
But the equation changes a whole bunch when the transaction isn’t between two citizens, but rather between a citizen and the government. In such a scenario, people tend to work the angles as much as possible, even if the consequences of getting caught can be dire. We were reminded of this curious fact upon reading an account of the Indonesian government’s efforts to rid a Borneo district of bird flu:
To protect local residents from the worst possibilities, a total of 7,000 infected chickens were culled.
Local authorities paid the owners a compensation of Rp12,500 (US$1.40) for every culled chicken, Endang said.
However, not all people welcomed the amount of compensation. Instead of giving up the positively infected chickens for culling, they hid the poultry and just handed over small chickens, he said.
As a result, the efforts to control and halt the spread of bird flu in Garut district were not so successful.
The first American parallel that popped to mind was the gaming of gun buyback programs, which have often been undermined by people who swap near-worthless firearms for disproportionate sums.
The main problem here, of course, is cynicism—a feeling among citizens that if there is no upside to playing by the government’s rules, since corruption or incompetence will ultimately cancel out any deal’s good intentions. That’s not an easy feeling to counter, especially since it’s often justified. (Eminent domain, anyone?) So maybe the only solution is to outsource buyback programs to private enterprise, who at least might be better equipped to determine fairer pricing than government bean counters. $1.40 per chicken strikes us as pretty low.