Monday, April 06, 2009

Beware of pickpockets. Especially in government

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Revenue Department SWAT team prepares for
action in suspected illegal right turn incident.

The Washington Times reports that three suburbs of Washington, D.C. plus Virginia Beach "are preparing to stimulate public spending with new red-light camera programs. This is part of a push to fill government budget shortfalls by ramping up tickets for moving violations."

It's no news that states and municipalities count on fines for infractions of regulations, ostensibly designed for public safety, as cash cows. But many people are not aware how big a business this is, and how it has become a form of stealth tax. And, for any leftists who chanced on this site, you should be especially aggrieved — it is a highly regressive tax, stomping the poor more heavily than the rich.

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With the possible exception of "gotcha!" red light cameras, most of the regulations are reasonable, and in better financial times the discretion of police added a further check against abuse. But with the country's economic graveyard spiral continuing, and dragging localities with it, governments are relying on fines to make up what they don't collect in tax revenue from people and businesses no longer making money.

I had my own epiphany on stealth taxation recently when I was clocked for having an inspection sticker on my car that was out of date. By six days. I was in violation of the law and the officer had every right to issue me a ticket. Had it been for, say, $25 I would have considered justice done. In fact, the fine was nearly four times that, which I don't think is reasonable. It was official larceny.

Here is a list of violations of traffic and similar offenses in Fairfax Country, Virginia (one of the locations that will soon have cameras seeing red) along with their associated fines and "processing fees." The processing fees are in many cases way in excess of the fines. It figures that the state or county government set the penalties "too low" for the authorities' needs, so they topped up the fines with these additional fees.

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Some examples of what you can be nicked for in Fairfax County: "Drinking in public" (aren't restaurants and bars public places?), $97; "Trespassing at [sic] cemetery at night," waking the dead I guess, $107; "Impeding traffic by slow speed," $92; "Causing or permitting vehicle to be driven more than 13 hours in a 24-hour period" (depriving the vehicle of its rest?), $92; "Failure to obey traffic lights," $162 — this is why the revenue hawks love red light cameras; "Failure to dim headlights on parked vehicle" (If your lights drain your battery, we'll drain your wallet!), $82; etc., etc.

I am not suggesting that improper driving should be tolerated, and a fine commensurate with the act uses Professor Edward L. Thorndike's Law of Effect to drive home (pun intended) the lesson. But when the fines degenerate into highway robbery (pun intended again — help! How can I stop doing this?), a generalized, cynical disrespect for the law is one consequence.

A republican form of government speeds into a danger zone (ultimate fine and processing fee, unlimited) when it starts to look on its citizens not as people to whom it has a duty of care, but as marks who are there for bureaucrats to shake down. Should that happen on a wide scale, as looks likely in the economic debacle, we will lose something even more important than money.

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6 comments:

latté island said...

Where I live, the cops entrap people. There are two tunnels that connect Oakland and Alameda, that cross the Oakland Estuary. Each tunnel runs in a different direction. The tunnel from Oakland to Alameda is a great fundraiser for the Alameda cops. The speed limit in the tunnel is 45, but immediately after, it drops to 35. So, people routinely get ticketed for failing to decelerate right after the sign. Cop cars are stationed in the area just for that purpose.

Slowing down there is a fine art, because even though traffic moves fast, it's sometimes almost bumper to bumper, so a commuter has to weigh the possibility of a ticket vs. the possibility of causing a multi-car pileup. This has been going on for years. (I love the APD, aside from their venality. They have a very high rate of solving crimes.)

Rick Darby said...

Maybe the best policy all around is to stay out of Oakland. Unless you work there, why go? Why even travel through Oakland, when it only takes you to places like Hayward that are lost to civilization?

Jaz said...

Drive speed-limit slow and extra "safe". Make sure every "i" is dotted and every "t" is crossed. Obeying the law can be turned into a form of tax-protest.

Jaz said...

I want to add that I'm not hectoring you to "obey the law." But rather to have a fun ju jitsu on the greedy bureaucrats.

Rick Darby said...

Jaz,

Good point. It's likely that the pressure will be on cops to look for any conceivable violation they can write people up for to make up for lost tax revenue. I've been driving the same route to work and back for seven years now and kind of know where the danger zones are. I plan to be extra cautious -- which probably means I'll get ticketed for driving too slowly.

Jaz said...

Yes, they'll get their revenue one way or another. Once all the blood has been squeezed from us turnips, they'll carve us up and eat us.

But, when the economy tumbles, we all tighten our belts. When the government revenooers grumble, we must needs tighten our belts.