When should we dob?

Last week, I was encouraging readers to dob in a Trot. But in the Sunday Age yesterday IPA Review Editor and semi-regular blogger Chris Berg argues that dobbing could undermine community trust:

Trust is at the centre of every personal and economic relationship we have and without it, any community in the meaningful sense of the word is impossible. Encouragement by the government to dob each other in discourages the formation of that trust. The extreme example of a government actively encouraging the breaking of that trust suggests how important it is. In totalitarian socialist and fascist societies, the state broke down civil society to such an extent that people would report even their own family members for any perceived minor infractions.

The context for this is controversy about the Victorian government’s Dob in a Water Cheat line, designed to detect those breaching Melbourne’s tight water restrictions:

MARGARET Norriss is living in fear. The retired teacher is so scared of the emergence of water vigilantes that she doesn’t dare hose her front garden, even though she has been using a rainwater tank for the past nine years.

“The whole thing is turning the community against one another,” Ms Norriss told The Sunday Age. “It’s becoming like Big Brother and I’m starting to feel very uncomfortable.”

In the ethics of dobbing, I think there are at least two clear categories and a more complex one in the middle – where I think we find water dobbing, but Chris does not. We both agree that dobbing in criminals and terrorists is ok. As Chris puts it:

Reporting crime or terrorism helps, rather than harms, the viability of our communities by making us feel safer and more confident in our person and possessions. As a result, no one complains. The thief knows that stealing is wrong, and the dobber knows that stealing is wrong. Everybody accepts laws against stealing.

At the other end of the spectrum are offences where the perpetrator is risking self-harm. Chris gives the example of jaywalking. I wouldn’t report a jaywalker. I probably would not report a drug user, unless they were making a nuisance of themselves (I haven’t to date, anyway). I think crossing the road dangerously and taking illegal drugs are both stupid, but in an anonymous big city I am not going to try to save strangers from themselves.

But breaching water restrictions is, I think, in a slightly different category. Of course one retired school teacher watering her garden isn’t going to make much difference, even if she was not using her own rainwater tank. But collectively the restrictions are an important part of ensuring that there is enough water for everyone’s basic needs. The more the rules on water use are broken, the harder it is to convince people that this is a shared sacrifice that they should be a part of. Indeed, tougher enforcement was a response to complaints that people ignoring the earlier less onerous restrictions were not being punished and were continuing to waste water.

As Chris says, it would be better to sort these things out locally if possible. But there are plenty of people who don’t care what their neighbours think any more than they care about the water restrictions more generally. Dobbing these people in and getting the authorities to slow their water to a trickle is a way of both stopping them wasting water and convincing other people that they should keep their usage down.

The way to deal with innocent waterers like Margaret Norris is what people, in self-help mode, have already been doing. This is putting up signs pointing out the water is coming from a rainwater tank, and not the public system. Perhaps to avoid fraud we need a more official set of signs, or a web list of self-supplied waterers. But where major collective interests are involved, a norm against dobbing is likely to be counter-productive.

20 thoughts on “When should we dob?

  1. Sinclair – Fair point. Lower priority use of water. Hosing down driveways etc is however a waste, and reflects the underpricing of water.

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  2. Dobbing does not stand by itself. The object of the dobbing is exposed to the coercive power of the state. It needs to be pretty serious to justify that.

    The water is not being used to shoot down planes or hold up banks. It’s watering the garden. There’s a difference.

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  3. What David said. And it’s another example of the drawbacks of regulation as a substitute for proper pricing.

    This ‘shared sacrifice’ bit is a furphy aimed at keeping the punters docile as the consequences of continued mismanagement of water supply become apparent. Instead of blithely saying “its no-one’s fault and we all have to pitch in together” as we watch our gardens die we should be bloody angry.

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  4. I have to say I’m not convinced that water is ‘underpriced’. I’m not even sure what this actually means. Yes, the government could charge more for the water – but it’s not clear to me that paying more money to the government is going to make it rain (in the catchment areas).

    While I agree the price mechanism is better than regulation, I’m not sure what it is we’re pricing.

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  5. My most recent water bill informed me that my daily usage cost was 19c – which provides no financial incentive to think about how valuable my water usage is compared to other activities, and I would expect no financial incentive for water companies to look for ways to boost supply.

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  6. Personally, I think better water pricing (as Andrew L said, up to the marginal cost) would make more sense than restrictions. But that’s a separate question. The fact is, we have restrictions and they should be enforced, or else people who obey them are penalised while the flouters get to free ride. Ideally, the government ought to devote appropriate resources to police its own laws. But if that’s not going to happen, I see nothing wrong with dobbing. I think it’s an exaggeration to say water dobbing will tear apart the fabric of society: Ms Norriss’ problem is not dobbers, but violent thugs. She has nothing to worry about from official water inspectors who have been ‘tipped off’. The fact is, like Andrew N, 99% of people are not going to be bothered dobbing on others in relation to activities that basically involve self-harm, such as jay-walking. As for the 1% busy-bodies, the authorities will just continue to ignore them.

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  7. Proper price signals are the obvious solution to water misuse, not dobbing in water wasters. It works with other “essentials” like electricity, telephone services and petrol.

    Mind you, it might only affect the supply side if there was privatisation of water utilities.

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  8. Jacques – 99% of the time I’d agree with you. Demand curves slope down and as price increases so quantity demanded falls. Okay. (Of course, this begs the question why price is changing without denad and supply changing, but never mind that now). But why do we believe that water is artifically priced below equilibrium? Most people say something like ‘water is being wasted’. But how do you know water is being wasted? People have different use-values for water at the price.

    But now consider the next part of the story. Normally when the price of a product rises, this calls forth an increase in supply of that commodity. An increase in the price of water wouldn’t increase supply (unless we’re talking desalination prices here).

    Another idea I’ve had and thought of writing up the notion that restrictions are more ‘efficient’ than price signals in the short run if you want to save water (and not just have people pay more for the water they use). In the short run the supply curve for water is inelastic. If we assume the price is below equilibrium (however defined) then we can show the consumer surplus and the excess use. Now consider, as economists implicitly do, a ‘normal’ supply curve (not inelastic) with the same price we can show the consumer surplus and the excess use. In the first case there is less excess use than economists think. In other words the increase in price will not save as much water as economists think. In order to generate as large a saving of water the price would have to be increased very dramtically. (Implying a low demand elasticy too). This might explain why water authorities almost always apply restrictions instead of using the price mechanism. They don’t want you to pay for the water you use, they don’t wnat you to use the water. This is due to the fact that the authorities (water supplier) can’t cntrol the production of water per se (unless we’re talking desalination etc). Anyway, I expect every economist in the world to disagree with that analysis.

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  9. Plenty of work has been done on price elasticities of demand for water and it is not zero. For example, IPART published some stuff in about 2003. Its just politics that prevents prices from rising. Water is underpriced because we are pretty much consuming beyond a sustainable level and new supply costs a lot more than current prices.

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  10. If new supply is not going to be developed when it is efficient to do so, price needs to rise to equilibriate demand with sustainable yield. That would probably require at least a doubling of the variable price.

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  11. You’re probably right. I’m just uncomfortable about the many implicit assumptions (I perceive) being made. Of course, it is more likely that the rest of the world is right and I’m wrong, than vice versa. But still …

    At some stage, when I get a chance and the motivation I’ll write it all up and send it around to people saying “what’s wrong with this?” and see what comes up.

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  12. Sorry Andrew, we’ve strayed far from your original question. When should we dob? I would never dob on a neighbour watering their garden, or on a person not paying their tax, or doing anything other than a crime of violence. (I wold dob on my neighbour if he were the water minister watering his garden, but that would be to embarrass the government). As Cain said, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Good advice, people should mind their own business.

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