Enforcement may crowd out voluntary support for COVID-19 policies, especially where trust in government is weak and in a liberal society

Edited by Margaret Levi, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, and approved November 19, 2020 (received for review August 4, 2020)
December 21, 2020
118 (1) e2016385118

Significance

This paper makes three contributions. First, it provides insights from Germany on people’s agreement with policy choices that all countries face in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. My findings point to dimensions relevant for policy makers when deciding between voluntary as opposed to enforced measures. These insights include the essential role of trust in government. Second, the paper contributes to the small but important literature on the intersection of policy design, state capacities, and the interplay of obedience and voluntary compliance. Third, my finding that even 30 y after reunification those who have experienced state coercion in East Germany are less control-averse concerning anti–COVID-19 measures than West Germans contributes to the literature on endogenous preferences and comparative cultural studies.

Abstract

Effective states govern by some combination of enforcement and voluntary compliance. To contain the COVID-19 pandemic, a critical decision is the extent to which policy makers rely on voluntary as opposed to enforced compliance, and nations vary along this dimension. While enforcement may secure higher compliance, there is experimental and other evidence that it may also crowd out voluntary motivation. How does enforcement affect citizens’ support for anti–COVID-19 policies? A survey conducted with 4,799 respondents toward the end of the first lockdown in Germany suggests that a substantial share of the population will support measures more under voluntary than under enforced implementation. Negative responses to enforcement—termed control aversion—vary across the nature of the policy intervention (e.g., they are rare for masks and frequent for vaccination and a cell-phone tracing app). Control aversion is less common among those with greater trust in the government and the information it provides, and among those who were brought up under the coercive regime of East Germany. Taking account of the likely effectiveness of enforcement and the extent to which near-universal compliance is crucial, the differing degrees of opposition to enforcement across policies suggest that for some anti–COVID-19 policies an enforced mandate would be unwise, while for others it would be essential. Similar reasoning may also be relevant for policies to address future pandemics and other societal challenges like climate change.

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Data and Code Availability.

The anonymized survey data and code files to replicate the results of the paper have been deposited at GESIS SowiDataNet | datorium (German Data Archive for the Social Sciences) and are available at https://doi.org/10.7802/2124 (50).

Acknowledgments

I am grateful to the editor Margaret Levi and anonymous referees. I thank S. Bowles, C. Diehl, U. Fischbacher, J. Schulz, S. Siegloch, R. Weber, N. Weidmann, my colleagues of the TWI group, and the COVID-19 ad-hoc survey task force team of the Cluster of Excellence “The Politics of Inequality” at the University of Konstanz for very helpful comments and suggestions. I am grateful to T. Hinz, T. Wöhler, and K. Mozer for great support of the SurveyLab implementing the survey. This work was funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) under the Excellence Strategy of the German Federal and State Governments (gefördert durch die Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft [DFG] im Rahmen der Exzellenzstrategie des Bundes und der Länder–EXC-2035/1–390681379). I acknowledge additional financial support by the Thurgau Institute of Economics.

Supporting Information

Appendix (PDF)

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Information & Authors

Information

Published in

Go to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Go to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Vol. 118 | No. 1
January 5, 2021
PubMed: 33443149

Classifications

Data and Code Availability.

The anonymized survey data and code files to replicate the results of the paper have been deposited at GESIS SowiDataNet | datorium (German Data Archive for the Social Sciences) and are available at https://doi.org/10.7802/2124 (50).

Submission history

Published online: December 21, 2020
Published in issue: January 5, 2021

Change history

July 7, 2021: “Article updated to correct the following sentence: “Depending on the measure, relatively few—between 12% (app) and 28% (masks)—respond positively to control, that is, their agreement is greater under compulsory instead of voluntary implementations (blue slices).” In the previous version “voluntary” and “compulsory” were inadvertently reversed in the sentence.”

Keywords

  1. social norms
  2. institutions
  3. state capacities
  4. cooperation
  5. crowding out intrinsic motivation

Acknowledgments

I am grateful to the editor Margaret Levi and anonymous referees. I thank S. Bowles, C. Diehl, U. Fischbacher, J. Schulz, S. Siegloch, R. Weber, N. Weidmann, my colleagues of the TWI group, and the COVID-19 ad-hoc survey task force team of the Cluster of Excellence “The Politics of Inequality” at the University of Konstanz for very helpful comments and suggestions. I am grateful to T. Hinz, T. Wöhler, and K. Mozer for great support of the SurveyLab implementing the survey. This work was funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) under the Excellence Strategy of the German Federal and State Governments (gefördert durch die Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft [DFG] im Rahmen der Exzellenzstrategie des Bundes und der Länder–EXC-2035/1–390681379). I acknowledge additional financial support by the Thurgau Institute of Economics.

Notes

This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.

Authors

Affiliations

Department of Economics, University of Konstanz, D-78457 Konstanz, Germany;
Thurgau Institute of Economics, CH-8280, Kreuzlingen, Switzerland

Notes

Author contributions: K.S. designed research, performed research, analyzed data, and wrote the paper.

Competing Interests

The author declares no competing interest.

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