All Commentary
Thursday, March 1, 2001

Of Lights and Liberty

The Public Is Still Uneasy with the Specter of Big Brother

Recently, while returning from lunch with a colleague, we observed a person blatantly running a red light. This event prompted my colleague to remark that he couldn’t understand why the government had not installed cameras to photograph the license plates of people who run red lights. I pondered his remark briefly, then told him that I considered the lack of cameras to be good news. I’ll explain.

Let me begin by stating that people who run stoplights endanger the safety of others. And let me add that, at least in my town, red-light running seems to be an increasingly common action that has occasionally led to severe automobile accidents.

How then can I think that the government’s unwillingness to install stoplight cameras is good news? It has nothing to do with my strong desire not to pay higher taxes, though I am overtaxed already. Even with a large number of stoplights, my share of the cost of cameras would be rather small and would certainly be dwarfed by my existing tax burden. Moreover, I do not delude myself into thinking that the need to raise taxes to fund the cameras amounts to a serious constraint on government expansion.

Instead, my happiness at the lack of cameras derives from my perception that the factor constraining the government’s willingness to install cameras is the public’s uneasiness with the specter of “Big Brother.” Admittedly, this small instance of Big Brother might save some lives and would be a relatively minor encroachment on our freedom. Nor would the installation of stoplight cameras be significantly different in principle from having a police officer monitor the intersection. However, in this era of bipartisan support for the nanny-statism espoused in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s It Takes a Village, it is heartening to see at least one example of people’s desire for liberty outweighing their demand for safety.

Unfortunately, such instances of freedom taking precedence over safety are too rare. The same society that rejects stoplight cameras readily embraces government oversight of banking and other financial dealings, government-mandated searches before boarding airplanes, the war on drugs and tobacco, and the levying of taxes to fund a myriad of redistributionist schemes.

One can only hope that the public revulsion against Big Brother hiding in every stoplight spreads to other parts of our lives. For, as Benjamin Franklin said, “they that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

  • Frank Stephenson is a professor of economics at Berry College in Rome, Georgia.  He holds a B.A. from Washington and Lee University and a Ph.D. from North Carolina State University.  His research interests lie primarily in public choice and sports economics, and he has published in scholarly journals such as Public Finance Review, Public Choice, the International Journal of Sport Finance, and the Journal Sports Economics.  He has also contributed to Regulation and The Freeman and has taught at IHS and FEE summer seminars.