Saturday, October 30, 2010

Real Solutions to Real Problems

In the 18th century, Britain shipped prisoners to Australia, but there was a problem. Sometimes as few as 2/3 of prisoners arrived alive, and those who survived were beaten, malnourished, and often on the verge of death. Sure, they were criminals, but it was still seen as a travesty.

The British government commissioned private ship captains to make the voyages, and they imposed many restrictions and regulations on them in an effort to increase prisoner survival. Ships were required to staff a doctor for the prisoners. Fruit was given to the captains to prevent scurvy among the passengers. Inspections were done at British ports the ship stopped at along the way.

The captains got paid more, in the hopes that more money would discourage them from selling the fruit and medicine in Australia. Priests even tried to appeal to the captains’ morality. As anyone who knows anything about businessmen might guess, none of this worked. The incentive was always there to minimize costs and maximize profits.

What measure was taken to finally bring the average survival rate of prisoners from 75-80% to 99%? In 1793, captains were paid only for prisoners who survived the journey to Australia. Rather than being paid for how many prisoners walked on the boat in England, captains were paid for how many walked off in Australia.

The first shipment of three ships full of 422 prisoners under this policy arrived in Australia with only 1 dead prisoner.

When I hear people on the right complain about regulation, I think of this example. I think: “Yes, sometimes in the pursuit of an answer, we come up with failed solutions, but this doesn’t mean we must stop trying to find an answer.”

What is most reassuring, however, is that the solution is often very simple. What you can’t do, however, is wait for those who profit off the suffering of others to freely decide to do the right thing.


  1. "What you can’t do, however, is wait for those who profit off the suffering of others to freely decide to do the right thing."

    But you can pay them to do the right thing - obviously the regulations did not work, only having the privateers responsible by profit v. loss fixed the situation.

    Carrot always beats stick.

  2. Ship captains opposed the measure, because it meant less money. It was still an action taken against the wishes of the indusry. And frankly, fining them for every dead prisoner twice what they were paid would have done the same thing.


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