I’m going to describe a scene on the highway that you have probably experienced many times in your travels. We tend to brush it off as just something that happens, an annoyance that is part of American life.
But actually, the problem is more serious. It is not only alarming; it is positively life endangering. Not only is it legal; the perpetrators of the problem themselves are the enforcers of the law, the very people who decide whether or not you are being compliant and have your life in their hands when they decide. And this all takes place within the framework of a system that is supposed to be keeping us safer. The problem is also correctable.
The scene is this.
I was driving at 73 miles per hour on a crowded highway on a holiday weekend. There were cars all around me, and they were moving in and out of lanes. Everyone had a sense of the groove of the traffic patterns. The situation was objectively very dangerous – all driving on highways is – but experienced drivers have the sense to avoid accidents. We are all defensive drivers, profoundly aware of what others around us are doing.
Traffic was moving along nicely, and safely as things go.
Out of nowhere, we heard the sirens and saw the blue lights from a quarter mile back. The police officer was driving 95 miles per hour, and then faster and faster. He had apparently clocked someone going over the speed limit one mile back, and was racing to catch up to the offender (that part of the job must be great fun). Who was in trouble? It could have been anyone on the road. Who would be the unlucky one?
The blue flashing lights were getting closer and closer, and all cars were frantically trying to slow down and change lanes to get out of the way, or prepared for the worst. I was alarmed. Surely everyone else was too. Instead of paying attention to the road, we were distracted by the artificial mania some one person was creating on an otherwise peaceful road.
The officer’s car was by now certainly driving over 100, beating the speed of everyone else. Cars were changing lanes left and right, and the officer was swerving in and out of traffic, introducing an element of chaos that had not previously been there at all.
He was getting ever closer to me. Like everyone else, I wondered if I would be the unlucky one. Anyone could have been because the traffic slow was faster than the postead speed limit. I was in the right lane. He pulled next to me in the left lane and pulled past. There was perhaps 30 feet between me and the car in front of me. The cop suddenly swung his wheel right. He was shooting the gap between me and the car in front of me, and bearing down hard and fast.
The state has a law called the move-over rule. You get ticketed if you pass a cop in the right lane who is stopped on the side of the road. Now that the police officer was pulling someone over, everyone on the road had to move left, because of the move-over rule. More disorder ensued as we all slammed on the brakes and tried to get in the left lane. It was confusion all around — still at speeds of 60 miles per hour and with very close contact, every driver making 5 or 10 decisions at once.
I was finally in the left lane and sped past the unlucky bloke who was pulled over. I was safe. Another mile down the road, I realized that my heart was racing and my palms were sweating, and I was trying to get my bearings again. A calm and relatively safe drive had suddenly turned into a cacophonous scene of confusion and chaos — all because a police officer had randomly targeted one person. And why? It can’t be merely that the officer was trying to punish speeders, because the officer himself was the worst speeder of all. Probably he was seeking to fulfill a quota to collect money to fund the police who cannot rely on local tax money and so have to collect as many fines as possible.
Now with that scene safely behind me, I began to reflect on what just happened. These people’s job is to catch malefactors on the road so that the roads can be safer for all of us. That’s the goal and the point: safety. That’s why they are there. That’s why we put up with armed policemen who enjoy the privilege of breaking the law they are charged to enforce.
But this was not what happened. The single most dangerous force on the road at that moment was the police officer himself. We aren’t allowed to exceed speeds of 70 mph, but he is permitted to weave in and out of traffic going as fast as 120 mph at the highest, all in the name of stopping someone from going 80 mph.
And yet this is the person in a legal position to stop anyone on the road, ticket them to collect $150 plus, search the car based on a subjective sense of probable cause, and tase the driver or even kill her or him for noncompliance. The main lawbreaker here was the police officer, and yet there is absolutely no accountability. He can’t be charged with breaking the law, because the law itself says he is keeping the law no matter what he does. The officer’s behavior actually endangered the lives of the rest of us, but the rest of us had no recourse.
Now, there is nothing particularly unusual about this story. Something similar has surely happened to you. We all emerged from the scene safely, thank goodness. One poor slob got a ticket and a mark on his driving record. What’s remarkable is how often something along these lines actually occurs and how little commentary and/or protest there is about it.
For that matter, to whom are we supposed to protest? I was driving through some random town, the name of which I don’t even know. There is no recourse, and it would be pointless to spend time to go to a town hall meeting to denounce the city council for permitting this.
So we drive on.
We should learn some lessons here. The real reason for the lack of accountability is the absence of any consumer/producer feedback system in place. The police are in charge. We are not. That leads to corruption, absence of safety, rogue behavior, and the absence of any real corrective mechanisms when something goes wrong.
You look over that open road and consider the lords of the road, and you notice certain things. There is no owner. There are no paying customers. There are no mechanisms to correct mistakes when they happen. There is not even a metric for what success looks like, so, of course, there can be no rational way to fix the problem.
The core issue is twofold: public ownership of the roads and no stockholders/owners in charge of security services who are answerable to consumers. The result is exactly what you get from socialism: random chaos, coercion, and lack of accountability.
After 2008, localities scrambled to find a new source of revenue to offset the loss of property taxes. This was the time of great discovery: tickets are a fabulous source of money. That was about the point at which they were unleashed on the population with ticket quotas. The police themselves became ever more militarized. The bad results rarely make it into viral videos on social media. The real problem is the unrelenting scene I described above: officers tasked with making the roads safer achieving the very opposite.
The point is not to inveigh against security officials; we do need them. The right kind of reform would embed that market function into the structure of the market itself, which is characterized by checks on power, a test of functionality and efficiency, a mechanism for improvement, and accountability all around. Remove any service from the market test and it will eventually devolve into what all of us experience on public roads every day: people with legal privilege who cause the reverse results of the jobs they are statutorily charge to bring about.
We thrill when a bad review of the new Samsung phone causes the company to pull it from the shelves. We anxiously await the Rotten Tomatoes ratings of new film releases. We don’t buy anything from Amazon until we’ve looked at customer evaluations. We check out restaurants on Yelp before we throw down our money. But with the police, it’s different. We have no choice. We have no voice. We have no expectation that a bad system will get better anytime soon.
As things stand, policing shares much in common with socialism generally: an ideal people imagine should happen that massively contrasts with the real results people experience in real life.