In the days of British Raj, the government of Delhi found there were plenty of cobras in the capital city.
To prevent the deaths of British imperialists from these venomous serpents, they hatched what they thought was a brilliant idea to curb the cobra population. They launched a bounty program where citizens were rewarded with cash for each dead cobra they brought in.
Initially, this program worked like gangbusters and the result was lots of dead cobras. Problem solved…or so the British thought! Unfortunately for the British imperialists, the enterprising locals started breeding cobras to make more money. The British realised their folly and scrapped the program. Without the bounty rewards, the locals who were breeding the cobras released them back into the city, leading to a higher population than before the snake bounty was introduced. This has since been known as the cobra effect.
This week, did we unleash a cobra effect with the case of Boniface Murage? Murage was arrested while smuggling his baby from Kenyatta National Hospital over a Sh56,000 bill that had been incurred after admission of his wife and child. He was later freed on a three-month suspended sentence.
Opinions were divided on whether Murage is a villain or victim. On one hand, those who think he is a victim, exonerated him from his act and instead blamed his circumstances on the government; for not providing an enabling environment where every citizen has, or can get employment, and for not offering free health care to every patient in all public hospitals. And in response, many well-wishers, including the Governor of Nairobi, came to his rescue in settling his bill, hiring a lawyer to represent him and offering him employment. Many have branded him a hero, a loving dad, a true champion. On the other hand, those who think he is a villain, were of the view that he committed a crime for which he should answer to, regardless of his circumstances. They argued that as a society, we must uphold the place of personal responsibility and readiness to accept the consequences of law breaking.
I submit that this case is a cobra effect. On the one hand, we have the law and on the other we have morals. These are two compasses that dominantly steer us towards good and socially acceptable behaviour. The law achieves this principally through the threat of penalties should we break the law; while morals achieve this through gratifying emotions of virtuousness. In deciding which action to take, we are governed by two sovereign masters – pleasure and pain. And the premium we put in our actions is dictated by whether the result will promote pleasure or decrease our pain. This is built on hedonistic foundation where the most moral acts were those which maximised pleasure and minimised pain.
In other words, this is known as utilitarianism. Our support of Murage’s action or lack of it ground-truths the principle of utility. We commend an action if it produces the greatest good for the greatest number. Conversely, we condemn it if achieves the opposite. Utilitarianism focuses on the results rather than the rules.
In Murage’s case, my counsel is that he should not be celebrated. He should not be absolved for his action because the end does not justify the means; and to do so is to trigger the cobra’s effect. The cobra’s effect is a perverse incentive which when attempted as a solution to a problem, actually makes the problem worse. It is an open secret that there are many Murages in this country; and the probability that they will attempt a Murage stunt in the hope that they may attract as many incentives as Murage has, is extremely high.
We are advocating for access and availability of free health services for all in public facilities; but have not gone further to interrogate where the requisite resources will come from, because this might mean paying higher taxes. Arguments have also been furthered that if we used our taxes prudently, that we would be able to provide free health services for all. This is true but only up to a point, as explained through the Laffer Curve. The Laffer Curve illustrates that the more an activity is taxed, the less of it is generated. The converse also holds true. This means that lower taxes boost economic growth and underpins what is called the supply-side economics.
Let us conceptualise the Laffer Curve on a graph and plot the revenue along the x-axis, the tax rate along the y-axis, and the point at which they intersect is zero. If the tax rate is zero per cent, no tax revenue is generated because nobody is paying taxes. Likewise, if the tax rate is 100 per cent, the tax revenue is still zero because nobody is willing to work and have all their income taxed by the government, leaving them with nothing. When taxes increase from zero, it boosts government revenue immediately. And the more the taxes go higher along the y-axis, the more the revenue that is collected along the x-axis. However, as the tax increase continues, the payoff in additional revenue begins diminishing as the tax base reduces causing the curve to boomerang backwards to zero.
Back to Murage’s case, are the actions of his well-wishers an act of the greatest good for the greatest number? Are these well-wishers prepared and able to extend the same kind gestures to other Murages that will emerge? If any worthwhile end can justify the means to attain it, will this not be eroding the true ethical foundations against which rules are set and adhered to?
I sympathise with Murage’s situation. But my unsolicited advice to him and other Murages is that a particular act cannot be judged as good, simply because it may lead to a good consequence. The means must be judged by some objective and consistent standard of morality.
And to the rest of us, we ought to tread cautiously around post-truth. Post-truth is when objective facts become less and less influential in shaping public opinion that appeals to emotion and personal beliefs, while subjective opinions become more and more important to the point that fact and fiction becomes harder to separate.
The rarest of all human§ qualities is consistency – Jeremy Bentham