I knew that I was in trouble when the white car pulled up too close to my back bumper at the stop light. One too many antennas on the roof; the driver poking at the dashboard to his right. I thought about pulling over first, but drove on a block: inevitably the red and blue lights came on behind me.
The officer was in full battle gear. You’re not from around here? I resisted the impulse to reply in Dutch, shook my head, gathered my Hertz agreement and US driver’s license.
This is a rental car; you know we require seat belts in this village? <sigh> I’d unbuckled to get pen out of my pocket and jot down a note a few lights back.
It’s gonna be $35 – you can pay cash at City Hall before you leave. 15 minutes of our time for $35, and an hour finding City Hall and waiting in line the next day.
Yes, I was in the wrong. But I wasn’t being a hazard or a burden to anyone: I was carefully driving on the correct side of the road well within the 25 mph speed limit. It was a sunny clear day with dry pavement and I was driving a well maintained and properly licensed car. There was light early morning traffic, and I was watching for children, cyclists, and jaywalkers. I wasn’t texting or talking on a phone; I am fully insured.
Yet the literal reading of a well-intentioned law encouraged the police to pull me over and collect $35. It wasn’t corrupt as the times when an officer in Wyoming or another in Bratislava took cash and then drove away without giving me a , two cases that actually were shakedowns. But I admit to feeling that city finances are being served rather than safety or justice.
And I don’t like that feeing. I want to feel like the authorities and I are working together on the same side of public interest. I remember the beat policeman that was part of the neighborhood; the patrolman who came to the schools to discuss crime prevention. But speed traps and spot checks feel adversarial and unjustified; patrolmen glimpsed behind a windshield or within riot gear feel distant and removed.
It goes beyond police: ordinary life suffers daily friction in the name of safety and security . The unmotivated searches by security screeners, the random detentions at customs, the admonishments against mp3 players at take-off and landing, the occasional bag searches when entering office buildings , all done for safety and security. But they often seem to add friction and cost to people’s everyday lives without visible benefit. And that undermines respect for both laws and authority.
A lot of the backlash against government is that people perceive laws, taxes, and regulations to be arbitrary, costly, and ineffective. A lot of this comes from how they are applied rather than how they are conceived. I don’t disagree with the safety intent of having a seat belt law. But that morning it felt applied in order to raise money or to let everyone know that the police ere doing their jobs.
And ultimately, for authority to have people’s backing, it has to follow it’s own rules and improve people’s lives.
Years ago, a cold winter night in Chicago, there was a knock on my door. It was a precinct worker for my alderman, asking f I could move my car for a few minutes so that they could remove the snow around it so that the streets would flow better in the morning. There was a small army of city workers out cleaning up the neighborhood. And, if I was so inclined, could I remember the alderman at the election next year?
I did: that was visible legitimacy The Machine was working, making my life easier and better.