Means and Ends

The other day, as I was making a left turn from one major thoroughfare to another, I noticed several traffic cameras still perched on poles in the median. I wondered why they were still there because back in November the voters of my fair city passed a ballot proposition to have the cameras shut down. Perhaps the city fathers and mothers are hoping that, with an upsurge in traffic accidents, the voters might change their minds and vote the cameras back on.

But I doubt that. Voters were well aware of the facts, that for example the traffic cameras had not only caught red-light runners and left-turn violators but had (they said) reduced accidents at the city’s busiest, most dangerous intersections. The hefty fines, they said, had sent the desired message. But such reasoning misses the point: Voters were not upset that the cameras worked as advertised, had fulfilled the purpose for which they were installed in the first place. What voters didn’t like was being spied on as they went about their daily business. They did not like feeling surveilled in public any more than they would have liked it in private. Indeed, they believed that they retained a right to privacy when driving in their own cars.

They also did not like the mechanical, algorithmic one-size-fits-all assumptions lying behind the programming of the cameras. There are, they felt, differences of reaction in different situations, decisions such whether to proceed with a left turn or not depending on the assessments of individual drivers in particular circumstances. Cameras, they reasoned, do not record those situational strategies. Thus the cameras, with their automatic flashes and equally automatic generation of tickets automatically mailed to their doors, represented Big Brother not only monitoring their activities and telling them not only what to do but what not to do—and fining them for it.

So the cameras have been shut down. This little example tells me a lot about my fellow citizens and marks a difference between attitudes in the United States and those of other countries, say Great Britain, where CCTV surveils everywhere. This is true “Don’t tread on me!” Americanism. More importantly, it suggests that people recognize that the ends don’t necessarily justify the means.

It certainly is a good thing to try to reduce traffic accidents and to spare drivers and passengers the horrors of severe injury and death, but in this case the means of achieving that end were rejected by the voters because they conflicted with values which the voters held equally dear. In other words, the achievement of one laudable end by this particular means eroded another laudable end, the desire for privacy and for not living in a surveillance state. A nanny state, if you will. For many Americans, and certainly for the majority of voters who ousted the cameras, doing for oneself is preferable to having the government step in and do it for them. Even if it means putting up with one’s own and others’ mistakes, even if sometimes those mistakes lead to serious consequences. It entails also a recognition that governments can also make serious mistakes, and that governmental mistakes can have more far-reaching consequences than the mistakes of individuals.

One can argue that traffic cameras do not rise to the level of, say, decisions to invade foreign countries, or to demolish established neighborhoods for so-called urban renewal, or unequally applied death sentences, etc., but maybe my city’s voters recognize that something as seemingly benign as traffic cameras are the thin edge of a much bigger wedge.

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