Measuring the cost of neglecting individual duty
Kevin Frazier will join the Crump College of Law at St. Thomas University as an Assistant Professor starting this Fall. He currently is a clerk on the Montana Supreme Court.
What if we valued voting as much as we detest cigarette butts? Stay with me. A forgotten or neglected cigarette butt is a lot like an uncast vote for two main reasons: first, both are the result of someone rejecting a relatively easy duty that will not or cannot be performed by someone else. Second, both cause communal harm. Yet, we measure a different degree of response to each—that’s got to change.
In hundreds of communities, there’s an affirmative duty for smokers to properly dispose of their butts. We enforce this duty through several sources of pressure because even a few smokers failing to throw out their butts can cause significant communal harm. The selfishness of just one or two smokers can wreck the days of dozens of individuals. More troublingly, that selfishness can spread—smokers who see a pile of butts left behind by others may feel free to do so themselves. Soon thereafter, a public space may become unusable because a few individuals opted not to do their duty—you’ll rarely find a family picnicking in a lawn littered with butts.
Fear of a collective space being tarnished by poor individual choices has rallied society to mount a three prong campaign against the littering of butts: government sanction—most communities not only mandate smokers pick up after themselves, they also impose a fine on those who fail to do so, government support—those communities try to support individuals fulfilling that duty by providing them with notice of that duty via a myriad of signs and even by supplying them with butt-specific receptacles; and, communal pressure—beyond a societal expectation that folks perform this duty, we have mutually agreed that those who fail to do so deserve general admonishment.
This policy regime is at once comprehensive and, in the parlance of Gen Zers, “extra”—it doesn’t leave performance of such a duty to chance. The community acknowledges the importance of clean public spaces and has proportionately responded. As the risks to communal well-being increase, so do the potential punishments--for instance, smokers face even stiffer penalties depending on the current fire risk on public lands.
Comparatively, despite the importance of a deliberative and diverse public sphere, there’s no such proportional response. There’s no government sanction—you’re free to forgo your civic duty regardless of the costs it imposes on others. There’s increasingly little governmental support; you can get a receptacle tailored to your cigarette butt, but even the provision of providing water to voters waiting in line is prohibited in some places. There’s insufficient social pressure—even if you were to learn that someone didn’t vote (and you likely won’t), few would feel empowered to comment on that neglect.
The communal cost of this individual duty being dodged has become increasingly apparent. Despite the majority of Americans indicating their support for gun control, climate change mitigation and adaptation funding, etc., these necessary policies have stalled in a congress selected by a minority of Americans.
The longer individuals neglect their duty, the higher the societal costs. As the disconnect between the majority’s preferences and legislative outcomes grows larger, the rule of law itself may fall into disarray--many will come to doubt and even challenge the institutions we rely on to confront key, modern problems.
Now’s the time for a change. As silly as it may sound, our policy response to cigarette butts can provide a template for how to better increase voter turnout. At a minimum, we should provide the same kind of proactive support for would-be voters as we do smokers and actively celebrate those who take individual action for the betterment of the community.
As bad as cigarette butts are, a democracy governed by the few is far worse.