Cash 4 Rights: why stop in the workplace?

Oct 09, 2012

Yesterday George Osborne floated proposals that employers could offer contracts that exchange 'workplace rights for tax-free shares in the company'. While on the surface, this is trading hard-won employment rights for magic beans that may or may not be worth much (and in many businesses' cases, a wily employer could make it worth very little indeed) that's no reason to be harsh on the principle which could be used for any number of things - what are other rights worth?

Have a look through the European Convention on Human Rights and ask yourself, am I really ever going to use that? Take the prohibition in Article 2 against the death penalty, even when we had it in the 20th century we only executed around 11 people a year. Using the 1900 population stats (which only increase and so make this even more favourable) and assuming a life span of 80, I only have a 0.002% chance* of being executed in my lifetime  -  might I not be happy to take few quid a year to waive my right not be executed?

Of course, no one is going to offer me money to waive that right for exactly the same reason it might be appealing,  it's not worth much to me because the chances of execution are low and it's not worth much to other people because the number of people wanting to execute me is also low (hopefully).  In the case for employment rights for shares, the reasoning is that these are rights that people are quite likely to exercise, but actually things would be better if they didn't. The ideal situation for everyone is one where the right is worth very little to me but quite a lot to someone else and there's an obvious candidate for this - voting rights.

It's a famous problem for rational choice explanations of voting behaviour that the benefit to the individual of voting is tiny compared even to the very cheap costs of voting as the chances that your vote is the one that changes the outcome is so tiny that taking it seriously is like planning a route to work that avoids lottery-funded asteroid strikes**. For those of us voting in safe seats we can be pretty confident that our vote is almost entirely useless.  The fact that turnout still tends to be much higher than the 0% it should be is Downs Paradox, and most ways of resolving it rely on people voting on matters other than self-interest, such as loyalty to the group or candidate, or even just people think that voting is a Good Thing that should be encouraged and gone through, even if the benefits to yourself are limited.

But what if we made it even more expensive to vote (or vote freely) by offering money the other way? When a class of NYU students was polled in 2007, two-thirds would exchange their vote for a free year of tuition, half for a million dollars and  20% were as cheap as an iPod Touch (then between $300-400). This isn't just good for candidates and my wallet, a study looking at São Tomé and Príncipe found that decreasing vote-buying also hurt voter turnout and increased incumbent advantage - which are bad things!

There may of course be downsides I'm missing to this, but while we're working out which-rights-are-worth-how-much it's definitely something to think about.

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* This is about the same odds as getting a straight flush in poker. Here's the question, did me telling you that make you feel being executed is more or less likely? Straight flushes are possible, your chances of seeing one in every game you've ever played or seen are much higher than the chances of getting one in your first game ever (which as my odds were over a lifetime is equivalent). Likewise dramatic hands are more likely to appear in film or TV depictions. This is a problem because when I give an example of probability your brain does a trick where instead of working on the odds, it tries to think of an example of the thing being described to assess the likelihood of it happening. Hence me giving the example of a straight flush makes 0.002% seem far, far more likely than it actually is.  Basically we're terrible with risk.

** Note: may actually be more likely than that.

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