Curtailing the Pleasures of Driving and Privacy

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My first car was a 1939 Buick that had belonged to my cousin. He gave it to my brother who unofficially ceded it to me. After I left home, the car reverted to him and he sold it for $10. That was $1 for each mile per gallon of gas that the car got. But the car burned almost as much oil as it did gas. It needed a ring job that no one wanted to pay for. I should check up on this history, but to do that I first need to remember to check up on it.

The whole family used to fill up in those days at a Gulf gas station in the center of town. Gas was never more than 29.9 cents a gallon. Why can I remember the price of gas 52 years ago and not remember what I mean to buy once I set foot inside a supermarket? I think it’s the din of "music" propagated inside. The station owner I remember as a nice man. His eyebrows seemed to suggest he was always about ready to cry. Much later when I took my business elsewhere because my car didn’t seem to run right on Gulf gasoline, his feelings were hurt. I felt bad about this. It wasn’t just his eyebrows. He was really a sensitive man. A small town was not impersonal, which meant that exchange wasn’t so impersonal in those days. He traded at my family’s small meat market, and we traded at his service station.

I shared a bedroom with an older brother from birth until I left home when I was 16. My first year of college I had an upper bunk. Finally I got a cubicle as a college sophomore with three roommates. The back seat of the Buick had more room than my share of all my bedrooms. They made them roomy so they could double as bedrooms. You could lie down without encountering seat belts everywhere. Anyone who bought this car didn’t need an apartment. The car had running boards which were ideal for carrying gangsters with machine guns or for transporting an entire baseball team. This car fit right in with any Cagney or Bogart Warner Brothers tough guy picture of the thirties. I imagine seeing it when I watch the Untouchables episodes put out by Desilu.

Another customer of ours taught me to drive. He was the high school drivers ed teacher who doubled as an athletic coach. This was made necessary by the small size of the school. My class had 34 students. Driving permits were allowed at 15 years of age, so I have now been driving for 50 years.

Seven or eight years ago, I got my first ticket. It was for going 40 in a 25 mph school zone. This is allowable when the school is out of session, which I mistakenly thought it was at the end of June. But despite its being deserted, I was trapped. The hard-hearted officer refused any entreaty to keep intact my unbroken skein of police-free and accident-free driving. He was more interested in the $100 fine. He pointed to the wire fence around the empty playground, not yet barbed wire, and warned me that children could climb over it and run into the street in front of demon drivers like me. I wondered what would have happened had I been female. Such is my stereotyped mind. I bought a radar detector.

Safe driving means adapting to the conditions of the road at the time one is driving. On the same road months earlier, I drove much more slowly because there was a young biker ahead. And a good thing it was. With his earphone supplying him with sound, he was oblivious to my car as he swerved across the road in front of me. I was able to brake safely. He didn’t even respond to horn blasts.

Great Britain has an extensive camera and speed-monitoring surveillance system on its roads and streets. This amounts to a stealth tax that brings in hundreds of millions of dollars a year. It keeps drivers preoccupied with their speedometers, which diverts their attention from where it belongs, on road conditions. The result of the camera surveillance program has been to stop the long-term downward trend in fatal accidents. As penalties and prosecutions using speed cameras rise, fatalities not only do not drop, they are higher than what they otherwise would have been. The money spent on cameras takes away from money spent on appropriate human monitoring by police and improving roads to make them less accident-prone.

Driving can be a joyful experience, although traffic due to the government’s road mismanagement greatly diminishes the pleasure of it. But knowing that one is being constantly monitored and may suffer a penalty has to erase any residual pleasure from driving. Driving pleasure is a real phenomenon. Do social planners consider how much pleasure is curtailed by excessive monitoring of individuals driving their cars? My doubt that they do is monumental, and looking at a selection of Canadian web pages on social planning does nothing to alleviate my doubt. Monitoring individual driving is not simply a tax on driving. It is a tax on the pleasure of living and a tax on the pleasure of privacy.

New York City has announced its own surveillance program, in the name of anti-terrorism. Any number of stealth terrorists already are living in the U.S., and short of draconian measures, of which this is a step, there is no possible way to prevent them from traversing New York City or any of a hundred other cities by car or by some other means. At this point, it is access to and proper interpretation of solid intelligence that can uncover terrorist threats before they are realized. That and a long-run strategy of defusing the political reasons that underlie terrorism on U.S. soil may lower the risk of terrorist attacks. Is spending $90 million to monitor everyone’s number plates in Lower Manhattan the best that we can do? This can’t work unless one already knows what number plates to look for. And in that case, why not monitor those vehicles and individuals directly? As anyone who travels by air knows, the out-of-pocket costs of air travel are only the tip of the iceberg. Air travel used to be pleasurable. No longer. It looks as if the Department of Homeland Security means to make automobile travel as unpleasurable as air travel. Eventually, they will get down to internal travel passes as they morph into a homegrown Gestapo.

There is always some convenient excuse for such pork barrel spending and accumulations of power. Great Britain did not need the terrorism excuse when it began its program in 1995 and before. China has a different excuse, which is crime and immigration. An August 12, 2007 New York Times article (available on news.com) reports that the government of China has introduced a pilot people-tracking program in Shenzhen, a city of 12.4 million people near Hong Kong. Chinese citizens already must carry national identity cards with basic information like name and date of birth. The upgraded computer chip on the card "will include not just the citizen’s name and address but also work history, educational background, religion, ethnicity, police record, medical insurance status and landlord’s phone number. Even personal reproductive history will be included, for enforcement of China’s controversial u2018one child’ policy. Plans are being studied to add credit histories, subway travel payments and small purchases charged to the card."

This is part of a larger picture, which includes camera surveillance. The city already has 180,000 cameras operated by businesses and government agencies. The city is installing 20,000 new police-operated surveillance cameras on roads and streets in order to spot suspects and criminal activity in-the-making; and it will have the power to tap into the other 180,000 cameras.

Is there any doubt that surveillance is a foot in the door leading to a big brother society? Cuba and other totalitarian societies operate with paid informants as well as neighbors and children ratting on parents. In this technological age, the authorities will try to accomplish the same using technology. All dogs and pets will have chips, and then all human beings, unless we stop this now. How do we do that? I guess we will all have to burn our ID cards or snip them in half or pass a strong magnet over them.

Pleasure and privacy are not a matter of teasing out abstruse rights from axiomatic foundations. They may not be there. Nor are they a matter that needs empirical study. Research suggests that driving pleasure has a component related to "responsiveness of the vehicle to driver manipulation of the controls, which means that the vehicle obeys and executes driver’s commands faithfully." In other words, it’s fun to drive. We live in a society where we spend thousand of publicly paid dollars to show that well-fed plants are green. Do we need to fund research to show that human beings value privacy and freedom of action? That already loses the battle because it assumes that we cannot act without studying everything, and that assumes that to study everything we must have a crew of social scientists who will study it for us, and in turn they are assumed to know or be able to measure what’s good for us. To commission a study over such a matter is to lose the battle. It is to turn one’s life over to an interest group of high-paid sociologists or some other newly-minted category of social science.

Jurisprudence may have trouble discovering a lawful area of privacy, but that does not mean that privacy is not valuable to us. Jesus enjoined privacy in prayer and interacted with his disciples privately on any number of occasions. Privacy is as basic as one’s good name. It is as basic as inhabiting one’s body. We need instinctively and automatically to defend the integrity of all of these from intrusions that threaten them or undermine them: our good name, our privacy, and the safety of our persons.

Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is a retired Professor of Finance living in East Amherst, New York.

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