Riding Free

The Abbott Government’s recent decision to make welfare payments conditional on children receiving vaccinations may just be its most popular policy to date. Not only has the medical and scientific community come out in support of the policy, but we have also seen Tanya Pilibersek supporting the notion in the pages of The Age and the Greens have slapped down a regional branch for suggesting that vaccines were unsafe.

The No Jab, No Play, No Pay policy denies families who refuse to have their children vaccinated access to government payments like the childcare benefit, childcare rebate and parts of Family Tax Benefit A. It aims to increase the immunisation levels among Australian children by providing a monetary disincentive for those to continue to refuse immunisation, who are free riders in the system.

Dean Robertson has already noted the free rider problem with anti-vaxers in The Age. Briefly, the free rider problem refers to when actors in a population (“the herd”) receive the benefits of a particular program or policy, while they themselves do not shoulder any of the cost associated with the benefit. In terms of the No Jab, No Play policy, the free riders are the people that benefit from the greatly reduced chance of their child catching a variety of infectious diseases, while refusing to vaccinate their own child who avoids the discomfort of a jab. Additionally, the unvaccinated children reduce the overall immunity of the herd, and put other kids at risk.

But what implications can be drawn from this in non-vaccine, and even non-health policy spheres? What other areas of our society allow free riders to benefit at the cost of the rest of the herd?

One doesn’t have to look far. For example, welfare recipients are provided money by the rest of the herd, the taxpayers, while paying a minor amount of tax themselves, or none at all. Despite this, they benefit from the goods the government pays for with the taxes it collects from the rest of society. The free rider takes advantage of safe streets provided by the taxpayer funded police force, a strong national defence, fire fighters, public schools and even bulk billed GP visits. To the upkeep of these the welfare recipient contributes far less than the average taxpayer.

Now, all this is not to advocate a shift to a Randian style public sector and government service rollback. A safety net for those in unfortunate circumstances is important, and we have various public goods that are staples in our civil system. Eliminating free riders in all the things listed above is impossible. But it is only fair and equitable to the herd that we try to reduce the incentives that exist for free riders, and the extent to which policies are susceptible to this problem. With the recent success of making welfare payments contingent on vaccinations, we should look to encourage other forms of positive behaviour. Why not make them contingent on a particular amount of community service being performed, or on proof that a recipient has made an effort to find gainful employment.

None of these are new ideas, but in light of support across the political spectrum for the Abbott government’s attempts to deal with the problem of free riders in disease prevention, maybe it is now possible to have a rational discussion about free riders in other areas of public policy.

Maybe this time, like on vaccination contingent welfare, the left might be ready to have an adult discussion.

Christopher Reside is a law student and Policy Officer for the ANU Liberal Club

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