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As Long as We Remember...

August 20, 2009

Another Intrusion into Liberty

Tony Soltero

As speed cameras seem poised to seep into Frederick County, the reactions from many have been fairly typical. On one side are those who don't care for what amounts to the latest of myriad assaults on the Fourth Amendment that have become common over the last decade or so.


On the other are the authoritarian types who righteously proclaim that they're not worried because they "never" speed, and, of course, "those who aren't breaking the law don't have anything to worry about."


That's a popular and seductive rationalization of Big Brother. If you behave, the authorities can't get you. It sounds perfectly logical. But it's a rationalization that completely misinterprets the concept of individual liberty, and assumes that law enforcement can be trusted as an actor that will always do the right thing and confine itself to only the most judicious exercises of power. Nothing could be more naive.


In a free society, any behavior by any individual is assumed to be legal and permissible, unless there is a compelling reason for the state to proscribe it. We certainly have laws against murder, rape, theft, and other serious crimes because the protection of individual life and property overrides any "right" an individual might have to deprive another of either. But the default setting, so to speak, is that we can do whatever we want, and it's up to the authorities to demonstrate why any particular behavior should be prohibited.


What these speed cameras do, along with other more serious Orwellian incursions into our privacy (many of which are enumerated in the insidious Patriot Act), is invert this assumption, this basis for what constitutes a free society. In other words, the presence of constant government surveillance assumes that we are all lawbreakers – the cameras are there to generously exonerate the non-lawbreakers. But the starting point is that whatever we do is forbidden unless the government grants us a waiver.


This is the reason authoritarians are so fond of these and other surveillance devices. They believe, erroneously, that the role of the state is to breathe down our necks and play a constant game of gotcha with the citizenry. Civil libertarians, on the other hand, believe that the government should take a reactive approach to law enforcement, not a proactive one – and that has been the foundation of law in our country over the centuries. Innocent until proven guilty.


Speed cameras are an illustrative example of this kind of authoritarian thinking, but they're fairly trivial per se; nobody equates speeding with rape and murder, after all. But this kind of authoritarian mindset has proven extremely destructive in other areas, most notably the 40-year-old War on Drugs, which has done almost nothing to curb drug consumption; but it has been enormously successful in chipping away at our basic freedoms and liberties.


Authoritarianism is the reason we haven't been able to have a rational debate about marijuana legalization in this country. In a free society, we should all be able to smoke pot just because we want to – and the burden of proof would be on the government to show why we shouldn't be allowed to.


If this were the approach we took, we would logically end up with the same type of sensible controls on pot consumption that we currently have on alcohol consumption – no selling of pot to minors, and stiff penalties for driving while high – that kind of thing. But the Big Brother mindset has precluded this reasonable result. We've allowed the state to preemptively declare that we have no right to smoke marijuana, and that has led to absurdities like America, a "free" country, winding up with the highest incarceration rate in the world.


The self-righteous authoritarian chest-thumper would simply declare that the best way to avoid being arrested for smoking pot is by not smoking it in the first place. True enough, but it misses the point. The real question is why do we have laws against smoking pot to begin with? What right does the state have to prevent us from doing so? What is the state's interest in proscribing cannabis?


And until we collectively start asking those questions more often, we're going to get a lot more intrusive things than speed cameras in the future.


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