San Mateo County has made “millions” from the operation of red-light cameras. Recent average monthly citations according to the Examiner
Daly City: 660
Menlo Park: 630
Redwood City: 507
San Carlos: 53
San Mateo: 587
The fine is $381
for running a red light in the City of San Mateo. Simple multiplication reveals the importance of the program's revenue to the cash-strapped City, especially when measured against its payment of $6,000 per month to the equipment vendor.
As a cautious driver I don’t mind and even applaud strict, even-handed enforcement of traffic laws. But when the government has strong financial incentive to impose fines, it makes me deeply suspicious about whether the citations are imposed impartially.
Elsewhere on the City and County websites one finds that there are several convenient ways (Internet, phone, mail)
to pay the ticket. Contesting a fine, by contrast, is an involved procedure. It can be costly in both time and money, and the (un)likelihood of prevailing swings many decisions in favor of shutting up and paying up.
As government acquires more power over our daily lives (is that really open for debate?) the temptation of people who work in government--not everyone, but surely many—becomes more overwhelming to use that power to enhance their own positions. People are not saintlier if they work in private industry; it’s just that businesspeople have more incentive to be nice because they can lose their customers tomorrow.
Self-interested capitalists treat their customers well in order to make more profits. Self-interested bureaucrats make more money by expanding their own responsibilities, which means raising revenue through taxes, fines, and fees. This idea, called the theory of public choice
, is not new:
Public choice theory attempts to look at governments from the perspective of the bureaucrats and politicians who compose them, and makes the assumption that they act based on Budget-maximizing model in a self-interested way for the purpose of maximizing their own economic benefits (e.g. their personal wealth).
Unlike the consumer who can switch cell-phone carriers and gas stations on short notice, the “customer” taxpayer and fine-payer has little choice but to play by the rules of the bureaucracy. He must accept its decisions or dispute them at great cost. He may even be grateful if the decision doesn’t go against him completely. As a perspicacious writer said two years ago
In a thousand ways great and small our freedoms are increasingly circumscribed. I keep an eye on the traffic cameras and slam on the brakes when the light turns yellow. I paint black water pipes white because my neighbor's sensibilities might be offended. I have to check with the city before taking down a fence or putting a new one up. Whether I drive my car every day or once a month, it must pass the same smog inspection every two years. I refrain from making (overly) snarky remarks on this blog and even in friendly e-mails because a comment made in haste could someday come back to haunt me. We have to file all sorts of forms and payments with various agencies, and they must be complete and on time.
© 2010 Stephen Yuen
We're light years away from living in a 20th century totalitarian state, but more of our actions than we realize are dictated by compulsory rules, whether putting on a seat belt, reaching or not reaching for a smoke or a drink, or paying a nanny. We'll cede more and more of our freedoms during the next four years, and the pity is that we won't even realize that it's happening.