In June 2012, a crowd of local workers sang as they walked through the streets of Lira, Uganda’s fourth-largest city, with bags of garbage slung over their shoulders. Upset that the government hadn't been coordinating garbage pickups—a service they thought their taxes should be covering—the workers deposited the bags of trash outside government buildings, where they rotted in the summer sun. Before they could make good on their further threat of taking trash to local politicians’ houses, garbage collection started again.
This sort of political agitation is actually quite rare in Uganda. Corruption is relatively common among Ugandan political officials, yet most of the populace can’t be bothered to care about it, to their detriment. Lucy Martin, a political-science Ph.D. candidate at Yale, recently wrote a working paper that attempts to explain why more Ugandans aren’t protesting like those in Lira: It might be because they often aren’t asked to pay taxes.
Martin hypothesized that when politicians mismanage public funds, citizens might be more concerned if their own money—not natural-resource revenues or foreign aid—is on the line. To explain this, she invokes the concept of loss aversion, which says that people are more attuned to losses than gains. People categorize taxes as losses, and Martin argues that this categorization causes them to care more about how politicians are using their money than they otherwise would. (To be clear, Martin isn’t arguing that taxpayers should shoulder all financial burdens, but that contributing something could make them less apathetic.)