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World View | What the Netherlands Metro Taught Me about Crime

Jan 03, 20088 mins
CSO and CISOFraudIT Leadership

On Dutch trams, it seems, cheating the fare system would pay. Why are riders so honest?

I get a first-hand look at how well deterrence theory works when I board the trams here in the Netherlands–“trammin” as the Dutch affectionately call it. The Dutch metro system relies on a person buying a tram ticket beforehand and then being honest enough to stamp the ticket at a machine located on the tram. This system is largely left up to the honesty of the passengers, and what little enforcement there is comes in the way of assigned tram inspectors occasionally boarding the tram and checking that all of the passengers have stamped tickets. If a passenger is caught without a ticket, then he is fined on the spot for about 40 euros. In contrast, in the previous city I worked, New York, there were technical controls to prevent one from cheating–that is, you had to insert your metro ticket into a turnstile before the turnstile would open and allow you into the system of subway tracks.

It being the holidays, I had some idle brainpower to waste, and I wondered, does the voluntary Dutch tram system work better than the enforced system of the New York subway? It seemed to me at first that it all boiled down to the expected loss on the part of the passenger. If a tram passenger was always honest, then they could expect to pay on average about 1.50 euros per tram ride. If they didn’t buy a ticket then there would be some probability that they could get caught by a surprise inspection and would have to pay the 40 euro fine. Based on the totally unscientific technique of my personal experience and a little wild-assed guessing, I would say that the ticket inspectors board the tram once every 25 rides or about 4 percent of the time. Thus, the equation for calculating the expected loss of never paying but being occasionally caught would be the following:

    E(loss) = 40 euros (if caught) * .04 (probability of getting caught per ride)

        = 1.60 Euro per ride

In other words, based on expected loss it made little difference to the passengers whether they paid or not. If they were always honest and paid, then they would lose 1.50 euros per tram ride, whereas if they never paid and took their chances with being caught then they would pay, on average, 1.60 euros per tram ride. And the last calculation took no account of people who were able to avoid the inspectors by dashing off the tram just as they were boarding or the people who simply fooled the inspectors by standing next to the stamp machine on the tram and then quickly stamping their tickets just as the inspectors were boarding.

Logically, then, it would seem that crime could conceivably pay in the Dutch tram system. But, in my experience, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Whenever the inspectors do board, I observe closely to see if they ever catch someone cheating. Sometimes they do, but it is very rare–perhaps one inspection in four do they ever catch someone, and then usually only one person for an entire tram full of people. It would seem that the Dutch are largely voluntarily complying with paying even though they could probably get away with not doing so. In terms of deterrence theory, this made no sense. Clearly something else was at work. People seemed to be acting based on motives other than avoiding punishment or seeking personal gain.

Then, I remembered something from an ethics class I had once taken in university. A gentleman named Kohlberg developed something called a hierarchy of moral maturity. (See chart below). At the bottom of the moral maturity level a person did something merely to avoid punishment (stage 1). At stage 2, the person acted only to maximize his own personal benefit. At the higher stages, a person acted because he recognized that there were higher universal moral principles at stake. Under Kohlberg’s system, therefore, deterrence theory would be directed at people on the lowest rung of moral maturity. They would comply because if they didn’t then they would be hurt in some way. At the higher stages, however, people acted out of concern for the greater society and not just to avoid punishment or maximize their own personal benefit.

Kohlberg Moral Stage

Basis of Action

1. Naive moral realism

Based on rules

Avoidance of punishment
2. Pragmatic moralityBased on desire to maximize benefit to selfGreed
3. Socially shared perspectivesBased on approval of othersAvoidance of guilt from disapproval of society
4. Social system moralityBased on avoidance of formal dishonour from societySense of personal honour
5. Human rights and social welfare moralityConsider right and values that ought to exist in a moral societyMaintain self respect and respect of community
6. Universal ethical principlesPerspective is the moral view for all human beingsAction determined by equality, fairness and concerns of all humanity

Viewed through Kohlberg’s lens, it appears that most Dutch comply with the tram system’s method of charging simply because they are higher up on the index of moral maturity. That is, rather than just obey a law in order to avoid punishment; it appears that the typical Dutch tram rider is probably at level of 3 or above. In other words, they obey the tram law system because they see higher moral consequences if they and the other tram riders did not pay to ride.

This seems attitude seems to be borne out in other aspects of Dutch society as well. For example, prison sentences are typically much less in Dutch society than they are in American society. Under Dutch law the maximum prison sentence is 15 years and may be extended to 20 years for murders. The death penalty is outlawed. Despite the lower prison terms, however, the Netherlands has a much lower crime rate per capita for murders, rapes and aggravated assault than does the United States. For instance, according to the FBI, there were 6.1 murders per 100,000 people in the United States in 2006; in the Netherlands, according to the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics, there was just one murder per 100,000 people. And before someone in the reading audience suggests that the Dutch don’t report violent crimes, let me say that I have found that the Dutch people to be just as quick to report illegal activity and the Dutch police to very professional, efficient and relatively free of corruption–every bit the equivalent of their American counterparts.

As an American, I find it hard to swallow the idea that the typical Dutch citizen might actually be operating on a higher moral plain than the typical American. Yet there does appear to be something at work in the Netherlands that is missing in American society. It could be that the value of deterrence in reducing crime is grossly overrated. But I suspect the primary cause is that the Dutch feel a closer connection to their society than do Americans. Dutch culture emphasizes egalitarianism, social security and everyone doing their part in society. This culture was formed by centuries of battling against the sea, where everyone worked together to reclaim land from the sea and pitched in to aid others in times of flooding. The culture in the United States, by contrast, is one that emphasizes the individual, the importance of success defined by wealth and one in which the government is, at best, thought to be a bungling bureaucracy or, at worst, something that is hostile to the economic interests and political freedom of the citizens. Seen from that perspective one can intuitively understand why the Dutch are more inclined to follow laws they see as benefiting the larger society.

That’s my explanation for the difference; however, I don’t claim to be a social psychologist, and this is certainly not an academic piece of research. I am very interested in hearing what you think on this topic. Send feedback to the address below, and if I receive enough comments, I will post a follow-up.

Paul Raines, columnist
World View columnist Paul Raines is CISO for a non-profit organization based in The Hague, Netherlands.



To add to Paul Raines’ story on Dutch morality, two things:

–          The Dutch may not be as high on the morality ladder as Paul suggests, they may simply have a wrong perception of costs and benefits:

o        The cost may be perceived higher due to the ‘pakkans’ (catch rate) being overestimated – although I tend to think this is not the case;

o        The benefits may get lost as every fare payment itself is not perceived correctly. Thanks to the Dutch strippencard (fare is determined by the number of zones one travels, translates to number of strips to be stamped), most pay well in advance for quite a number of fares in one go – that looks expensive. But when one travels, one has forgotten the initial outlay and at 45 strips to a card, hey just 3 strips must be cheap – that can’t weigh against the (risk of) a fine.

–          Dutch jail times may appear to be (much) lower than e.g. in the USA, but inmates typically effectively serve much more of their time in jail. Unsure about the exact details, but I believe that in the USA, inmates on average serve one third or (much) less of their time whereas in the Netherlands, they serve at least two thirds and may much more often get forced psychological treatment (sometimes lifelong) after jail.

For the rest, of course I’m proud to ‘be’ higher on a moral ladder, especially as people might not expect that from an auditor ;-))


Jurgen van der Vlugt


Paul Raines is the Chief Information Security Officer for the United Nations Development Programme. In that capacity he is responsible for the information security and disaster recovery planning for the Organisation’s 177 locations around the world. Previously, he worked for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and, like all current and former members of the organization, shared in the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize. Prior to working for the United Nations he was the Chief Information Security Officer for Bloomberg LP and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. For relaxation he enjoys opera, Shakespeare, French wine and sometimes just sitting in a cafe with an espresso and croissant reading a good book on Roman history.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Paul Raines and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.

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