If there is such a thing as a free lunch, who pays for it?
For decades, the United States Treasury Department and the U. S. mint have been trying to get Americans to use one-dollar coins in place of one-dollar bills. It costs twice as much to mint a dollar coin as to print a bill, but the coins last 15 times longer. The economic advantages are self-evident.
The British love their one-pound coins. But for some reason, Americans don’t want to give up their bills. So when the treasury introduced the George Washington one-dollar coin in 2007, they offered an incentive program, making it possible to go online and order a roll of coins – 40 coins for 40 dollars – and pay for them by credit card. The coins would arrive postage-free and easily make their way into circulation.
At first, it seemed that the program was a success. The sale of coins was robust; in fact, it was a little too robust, as some people ordered thousands of dollars’ worth of coins. Then, as soon as their coins arrived, these clever folks took them straight to the bank, sometimes in their original packaging, and deposited them directly into their accounts – pocketing the credit card points they got from buying them. The government ended up paying for a lot of postage and didn’t get very many coins into circulation.
Did these clever people do anything wrong?
When questioned about their manipulation of the government offer, many acquitted themselves with, by arguing that it wasn’t illegal. This, of course, misses the point entirely. Although there was no contract or statement of conditions, the intent of the offer was clear – to get coins into circulation. By merely depositing them, these individuals violated the implicit terms of the deal.
Someone had to pay for all that postage. That someone is the government, which means that American tax dollars went to, among others, the person who bragged that he collected enough points buying coins to pay for his trip to Tahiti.
Do you want to pay for this charlatan’s trip to Tahiti? I know I don’t.
The problem here is, again, the conflation of what’s legal with what’s ethical. The moment we forget the difference between the two is the moment we find our moral compass spinning in all directions.
This is the reason why compliance laws by themselves are not only inadequate but often counterproductive. No law has been written that can’t be circumvented through loopholes left by the impossibility of covering every contingency or anticipating every situation. Because loopholes, by definition, ignore the intent behind the law, they can only be plugged by a mindset that recognizes the spirit of the law as inseparable from the letter of the law.
“It’s not illegal” is the last refuge of the unethical.
- Aside from the expense to taxpayers for postage, is there any other cost incurred from this manipulation?
- Should the government have anticipated this outcome? What steps might it have taken to prevent it?
- Does the government bear some responsibility for creating an easy opportunity for citizens to pervert the intent of the law?
Excerpted from Yonason Goldson’s forthcoming book, Grappling with the Gray: an ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity, due out this October from Business Expert Press. Grappling with the Gray offers a collection of case studies, real and hypothetical, intended to ignite thoughtful consideration of ethical dilemmas in our personal and professional lives. It provides a guided discussion of how to work inward from both extremes toward a rational and equitable middle. Click here for more information