The Story Behind Finland's Thousand Dollar Speeding Tickets

August 17th 2015

Thor Benson

Imagine getting pulled over for going 15 mph over the speed limit, but you're a wealthy businessman or businesswoman, and the police officer hands you a ticket fine that will cost $10,000 (or in some cases $50,000 or even $103,000). That may sound absurd, unrealistic, or simply unfair, but that's how it works in Finland. Such a concept is hard for Americans to comprehend, but in Finland the policy appears to work just fine.

Let's be clear: To get a $10,000 ticket, you'd have to be making an exceedingly large amount of money per year. It's all part of something called Finland's "day fine" policy, which requires that fines for smaller infractions—"some traffic fines, as well as fines for shoplifting and violating securities-exchange laws," according to the Atlantic—to be based on the income of the person receiving the fine. (Other countries like Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Austria, France, and Switzerland also have systems of "day fines.") From the Atlantic:

"It starts with an estimate of the amount of spending money a Finn has for one day, and then divides that by two—the resulting number is considered a reasonable amount of spending money to deprive the offender of. Then, based on the severity of the crime, the system has rules for how many days the offender must go without that money."

The basic idea is that a $500 ticket for a poor person is a harsh punishment, while it is barely punishment at all for someone who makes $500 in an hour. Thus, in Finland they're punishing people in a way that is equally punitive for everyone. These kinds of laws have been around in the region since the 1920s, according to the New York Times.

Viewing the big picture.

"[Finland] has taken seriously for a long time all kinds of social democratic norms," Richard Wolff, an acclaimed economist and Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, told ATTN:. "The idea is that you must provide a basic standard of living, a basic quality of life, a basic inclusion in the economic, political and cultural life of the community to everybody." Part of the way they make things more equal is by making sure punishment is equal, and the hefty punishments leveled on those who make more, can be seen as a way to fund the programs that provide beneficial social impacts, such as national healthcare, tuition-free college, and free childcare.

In America, it is often said that people just have to work hard to get where they want in life, but many who work hard never get there. In Finland, "you can't say things like 'that's how the market works,' because if that's how the market works, then the market itself is deemed to be inadequate," Wolff explained. The government believes social outcomes are more important than market. This may all sound like a broader perspective than is needed to understand the origin of Finland's unusual fines, but Wolff said understanding the larger picture is crucial to understanding how these laws came to exist to begin with and why they have not been removed since.

Wolff explained one of the ways to confront the extremes of inequality—which Finland has in its mostly capitalist economy—is to say that "if you violate social norms, even if it's trivial, that the punishment has to do with your position in society," not just the transgression itself. The fines for wealthy and poor people reflects their place in the economy and their culture.

Understanding this mode of thinking.

"You hold the economy accountable for how it treats people, you don't treat people accountable for how well they've done in the economy," he said. "It's usually hard in an American classroom or an American setting to explain this, unless you have a lot of time." Part of the reason Americans have trouble understanding these laws is the lack of a large socialist or communist party in the United States, which is a result of the Cold War.

"When I come to explain to people, just running down a simple list of what the social benefits are to citizens in Italy or Spain or Germany, my audiences sit there with their mouths hanging open," he said. "Most Americans, and I'm including university audiences to make the points that they are 'educated people,' simply don't know. It's been a very successful program here in the United States to keep Americans ignorant about and unaware of what's going on with social protections in other countries, or if it leaks out to tell horror stories about them—stories like someone needing an operation and having to wait three hours before the national health service in some country saw them."

The likelihood Americans could accept the idea of fines based on wealth and other egalitarian laws might be shifting (and in some places it has been proposed). "One piece of evidence I would point to is Bernie Sanders," Wolff said. "When he can get 25,000 or 30,000 people coming out time after time across this country, something's going on, and this man is identified as a socialist." Sanders, who is running for president, identifies as a democratic socialist and has spoken out against income inequality and corporate greed, which has resulted in him getting some of the largest audiences for his speeches of any candidate.