A few years ago I received a bill in the mail for running a red light and thought it was a scam. These people were in Arizona, but they were fining me for a traffic violation in New York.
But, sure enough, New York State had started a program to catch people blowing past red lights. They mounted cameras at certain intersections and contracted with an out-of-state company to manage the operations and collections. They photograph you entering and exiting the intersection with the red light above you, highlighting your license plate. It’s a $50 fine (no points or insurance penalty) with a $15 administrative fee. Red light cameras are now used in 24 states plus the District of Columbia.
The public benefits are obvious. The system is vastly more effective at catching violators and, accordingly, decreases traffic accidents and fatalities. It frees police officers for other tasks. And these systems are cash cows for tight municipal budgets in hard times. And the only people who pay are those squeaking through barely red lights or rolling through right-hand turns on a red.
But this techno-solution has a serious moral and political downside.
Though the program could nudge us into a culture of greater law obedience, the opposite is just as likely: an attitude of lawbreaking where there are no cameras. You can already find the camera-scrutinized intersections identified on the internet, including Google Maps.
The use of these cameras establishes a default position of distrust between government and citizen, as there is in a prison or police state. A government that respects the liberty of its citizens trusts them in most situations to exercise their liberty. If people are becoming less trustworthy, the response of a free government is not to increase control, but to identify the sources of people’s deteriorating character and address the problem on that level.
It is clear that increasing surveillance decreases crime. Accordingly, we could place cameras everywhere as they do in London and New York. We could line the highways with photo radar equipment, and use unmanned drones as eyes in the sky for many security applications. This vast apparatus would significantly boost employment with people to monitor and analyze. Twenty-first century America could be more peaceful and secure than it has been in 50 years. But it would be a totalitarian nightmare. It would be like living under the watchful, judging eye of a government god. There was no crime in Mao’s China.
Empowering some people with that level of unobserved surveillance changes the watchers and the watched alike. The watchers see their fellow citizens increasingly as objects of suspicion and control. The watched become fearful and over-glad to get away with rule breaking when no one is watching.
Anyone concerned with the dignity of liberty finds this trend in the technology of government unsettling. “It has to be unconstitutional!” a friend objected. Well, no, but I sympathize. Surrounding ourselves with unseen seers, even to save lives and cars, violates the spirit of liberty.