Pay Americans $1,000 each to get vaccinated
I am a strong supporter of getting a vaccine for COVID-19. (I’ve got two in addition to my booster.) And I agree that getting shots in the arms of most of the 70 to 75 million American adults who remain unvaccinated is a pressing issue for the public. But the libertarian in me believes that the means are just as important as the ends. abrupt switch to punishment – job loss if President Joe Biden gets his way; For other advocates, potential restrictions on health care – have you worried.
People should get paid instead. Get a shot, get a check.
Punishment as a policy tool is always attractive to those who want others to do what is “right,” but there are always better alternatives. In the special case of COVID-19, employer mandates are an inferior solution to the vaccine hesitation problem; The most ethical way to engage employers in getting more opportunities is to encourage companies to offer bonuses.
Part of this reflects my general preference for positive over negative incentives. However, the biggest part is my concern about the tendency to use coercion in more and more uses. Punishing people for what they do or don’t do should always be a last resort.
We haven’t gotten there yet.
Proponents of the mandate argue that persuasion was not effective in reaching people with vaccine disabilities. fair enough. But different people respond to different types of persuasion. Before we start distributing sanctions, let’s try other policy tools.
Money, for example.
Why is it a good idea to pay people to get vaccinated? The theoretical reason is that coercion is bad. (Enforcement of even the lightest laws can lead to a violent outcome.) But there’s a practical reason, too: incentives work.
Examples abound. A properly designed program that pays students to read it can increase both grades and test scores. Paying at-risk children not to commit crimes promises to reduce violence. (It is true that such payments can create bad incentives, by encouraging young people to fit themselves into the profile.)
Even with addicts, who are often seen as unable to help themselves, urges can make a difference. A 2018 review of the scientific literature found abundant evidence for the success of what is known as “emergency management”: providing rewards, often in cash, to addicts who remain vigilant. Nicotine addiction is one of the hardest things to overcome, but a 2017 study of cash payments to reduce cigarette use found a significant effect even when the maximum a smoker could earn over seven weeks was less than $500.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has long used emergency management as one of its tools to promote sobriety and keep patients “engaged in therapy.” California is considering whether to try some form of payment to reduce opioid addiction.
It is true that vaccine refusers are not the same as addicts. They are people who are afraid, distrustful, or perhaps have ideological objections. But these differences actually make cash incentives a better option. After all, if the goal is not to break the cycle of addiction but to change people’s minds, the incentives are more likely to work. (If you think this is wrong – if you think the naysayers’ behavior would be hard to change – the money is still worth a try before moving on to compulsion, because you basically classify them as addicts.)
One might object that Ohio’s Vax-a-Million program, which gave those vaccinated a $1 million lottery ticket, didn’t seem to change the numbers. It was discouraged by President Joe Biden that states and cities offer $100 per shot.
But these failures do not indicate that the payment is not working. They only suggest that the amount was too low. And if I’m in Ohio and afraid of a vaccine, I won’t be drawn to a lottery where my chances are slim every time a shot goes into someone else’s arm.
Suppose more people were introduced. Much more.
Again, consider those 70 million or so unvaccinated adults. If half of them were vaccinated, it would be very close to victory.
Half will be 35 million.
Offer $1,000 apiece, and I suspect we’ll get to that number quickly. The price will reach $35 billion, which was once a lot of money in Washington, but these days it’s almost always a mistake. In fact, $35 billion is just 1% of the Democratic Party’s $3.5 trillion budget plan — and spending it on vaccines now will reap trillions in benefits later.
Another objection might be that it is not right to pay people what they ought to do in any case for the greater good. But this kind of thing is done all the time. Aside from the examples I’ve already mentioned, consider tax law, which was built around the idea that incentives influence behavior. Consider the charitable donation deduction, or the earned income tax credit. People should donate to charities. They should work. But the rules are still regulated to give extra incentive.
In short: America needs a vaccination. We know which policy is likely to work. And we can afford it. Let’s do it then.
Stephen L. Carter is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and his latest non-fiction book, Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer who brought down America’s most powerful gang. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial staff or Bloomberg LP and its owners.