Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Huge Cost of "Prevention"

Rochester, NY, just decided to install 60 red-light cameras to curb the endemic running of red lights in the city. Violators will get a $50 ticket through the mail, and the city will get what's left over after paying almost $4,000 per month to the company that owns and operates the cameras. If the city breaks even, $2,800,000 will be transferred from the pockets of violators to the pockets of the camera vendor. This program is a great example of the many "prevention" programs that drain our economy and go far to make us uncompetitive in the world.

As an ambulance worker, I know firsthand the danger presented by red-light runners. Just before Christmas several years ago, I helped clean up a three car collision caused by a younger man who ran a red light. The injuries were severe, and the Christmas plans of several families turned from celebration to mourning. I still grit my teeth when I think of that young man, and I shudder every time I see an unthinking person run a red light. Perhaps the cameras will prevent some horrible events from occurring.

The problem is that $2,800,000 now will be spent to control reckless stupidity rather than being spent on more beneficial consumption, or perhaps even saved. Certainly the violators would have better options for spending their $50, wouldn't they? And, doesn't the U.S. have more important industries than the one that makes red-light cameras? All those $50 fines, for example, could have been spent on energy-efficient light bulbs or college textbooks.

Formal economics training educates us about the trade-off's we make. "Guns or butter" is the classic example for comparing the choices we must make. Every penny that goes into preventing adverse voluntary behavior represents a penny that could be spent on something more useful to society. So, we understand that every dollar spent on a hugely expensive warplane that never fires a shot in anger could have been spent elsewhere. Similarly, the cost of police posted in schools and any number of other "preventive" measures aimed at curbing voluntary behavior such as school violence precludes spending on other, more useful, programs. In total, the cost of "prevention" represents a huge anchor on our economy, an anchor that countries who have less law-breaking do not need. So, we are less competitive than they.

I believe that we need fewer laws but uncompromising enforcement. In addition to "slap on the wrist" $50 fines for running a red light, we should increase the fine to $500 for the second violation and confiscate the car after three violations. I'd apply the same logic for all other conduct that we truly wish to control, and scrap the laws that we don't wish to enforce with truly punitive measures.

The fact is that the great majority of citizens obey the law, but they bear a huge cost to prevent unlawful behavior by a small minority. This "hidden tax" funds the bloated government bureaucracies that sap our economy by using our money for only symbolic "prevention". If our citizenry really understood this giant problem, maybe we'd change direction and free up an enormous amount of dollars for better uses.


Anonymous said...

I'd like to see the laws changed so it's easier to yank an idiot's driver's license.

Lifehiker said...

I would,too, Thomas,but many of the idiots then drive without the license. Taking the car solves that problem.