Thursday, November 03, 2005

Petrol Police

While reading today's Washington Post I was reminded of Sheriff Don Gebers who was the long serving sheriff of my home county, Ida County, in Iowa. Sadly, Sheriff Gebers passed away several years ago but I retain fond memories of his community outreach efforts based on the essential functions (more on this later) of his office. It was Sheriff Gebers and his deputies who taught me the science of fingerprinting and the Iowa Hunter Safety Course (oh no! Guns!!) which were natural extensions of their law and order duties for the county.

For me Sheriff Gebers' management style reflected my world view of the proper role of government which I summarize as:

"I want governments to have EXTREMELY few functions and I want them to perform these few functions EXTREMELY well."

However, sometimes -- due to power grabs, good intentions gone bad, or simply the Fall of Man :) -- government entities simply stray far, far from their appointed rounds. The best example I have seen this week of government overextending into an area they should not be nor should society want them to be active in is the Alexandria, Virginia Police Department (APD) which is partnered with Ford Motor Company via the following project:
WHAT: The Alexandria Police Department is teaming up with the "Ford Hybrid Patrol" to pull over fuel-efficient drivers at random in a customized Mercury Mariner Hybrid patrol SUV (complete with flashers and bullhorn). Drivers will be rewarded free gas cards.

The article at this website goes on to say that, "the department's 2006 fiscal year fuel budget is projected to reach $1.5 million, a possible increase of more than $500,000 from last year."

No doubt taxpayers will benefit if the department saves money on fuel costs but using police officers to focus the public on "fuel economy" sounds like the APD has clearly strayed from its core duties. This story should make us all raise serious, critical questions regarding the proper role of our civil servants:


1.) Is Alexandria, Virginia so free of crime that its police officers have free time to seek out and detain drivers with hybrid vehicles?

2.) What is the fully loaded cost of having officers perform this "MPG surveillance" function? Can we safely assume this cost exceeds the $2,500 which Ford donated to the Alexandria Police Youth Camp, Inc. which is cited in the article noted above? Would not taxpayers and the APD be better off if Ford simply donated several hybrid vehicles for the department to use versus the "soft harassment" of drivers program?

3.) Will "excessive petrol use" become a crime in the future especially since the police state has the tools for detaining gasoline guzzlers while rewarding hybrid owners with gift cards?

4.) What if an officer stopped the driver of a Toyota Prius hybrid to reward them with a gift card for efficient fuel use only to discover that the driver was in possession of drugs and alcohol in the automobile? Is "rewarding fuel economy with gift cards" considered "probable cause" thus allowing the officer to arrest the driver in this situation?

Bottom line for me regarding the APD/Ford partnership is multi-faceted:

1.) I can't see how taxpayers are saving any money today -- maybe in the future but the article doesn't explain that well.

2.) We should be concerned that a police department is essentially passing judgment on our personal driving choices.

3.) Government needs to focus not expand into new functions.

See you at the pump my fellow cellmates,



Anonymous said...

While you can criticize this particular program, I don't think it has anything to do with supporting your view of the role of government.

As a general matter, how do you figure out the role of government should be? Read John Locke? Locke's theories are actually pretty arbitrary -- they represent one man's personal views.

It seems to me, that often those who advocate limited government want it to do at least one thing: use coercion to enforce private contracts. I simply am unsympathetic to libertarian who complain about government interference when they want to use government to push around others using tricky contracts that only lawyers can really understand.

Anonymous said...

Are you more sympathetic to libertarians who want to use governemnt to protect themselves from lawyers who use tricky contracts? And how will you tell the difference?

Is "rewarding fuel economy with gift cards" considered "probable cause" thus allowing the officer to arrest the driver in this situation?

Don't be absurd. Driving a hybrid creates "reasonable suspicion" thus allowing the officer to ask the driver questions and look through the windows without actually searching the car until he sees something.

Anonymous said...

The most disturbing element of this story is that any police force could think that they have the rightful power to pull a vehicle over for any reason not connected to crime or public safety.

An arrogance of power, indeed.

Anonymous said...

uh, does anyone like being pulled over? how much free gas are you getting in exchange for the anxiety of being pulled over and having your trip interrupted? honestly i think i could pass up a few hundred dollars of gas in exchange for not having my heart rate sky rocket.

John Jenkins said...

Anything the driver saw after one of these stops would be inadmissible. He had no legal reason to stop the car to begin with, so any search, or even anything in plain view, would be tainted by the unauthorized stop.

Anonymous, don't sign what you don't understand. Clearly you don't understand the libertarian principle you're criticizing. When two people enter into a contract, they mutually covenant to perform under the contract. Asking the government to enforce that doesn't violate anyone's rights because everyone involved consented beforehand.

Anonymous said...

Another issue is that pulling over a motorist for no legitimate law-enforcement purpose is an unreasonable seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Anonymous said...

"Boss, the cops pulled me over for no other reason than to reward me with a gift card. I wasn't doing anything wrong, honest."

"I don't care. You missed an important meeting. You're still fired!"

ArtD0dger said...

It is clear that governments must occasionally use the stick to discourage acts that have negative externalities not borne by the individual actor. It is not so clear that the analogous use of the carrot is as fundamental to the role of government, or indeed ever appropriate.

The world and the people and other actors in it impose a complex but natural web of incentives and disincentives. Can we really be free if a paternalistic government imposes additional artificial inducements? How will society be corrected if the artificial inducements, conceived by the governing few, are in fact misguided?

NOTR said...

Wow! I cannot believe some of the comments you got to this post. I am amazed that some people actually think it is OK to piss away taxpayer dollars on such trumpery.

John Locke? Suggest the reader try Ayn Rand... maybe it would be clearer for him.

Mr. Burn said...

Ayn Rand is smart, but very narrow-minded. I am afraid I understand libertarian principles all too well, I once was a libertarian and changed my mind after thinking very deeply about contracts.

I don't buy the consent argument, at least in modern contexts. Typically, large institutions make contracts that a reasonable human would not read. Your consent in contracts is thus typically thoroughly theoretical.

Even if it wasn't, I don't see how that justified coercion. The bottom-line, libertarians don't like to be pushed around by the government, unless the government does it to enforce contracts. I don't see why ex ante consent should trump ex post consent. Basically, contracts are anti-individual freedom when enforced coercively by government.

The problem with libertarians is they selectively ignore certain types of coercion. That is deeply flawed. One should not ignore certain realities and only acknowledge other realities.

Government enforcement of contracts cannot be justified on ground of increasing human freedom (unless it is the freedom to coerce others that you are talking about). The reason to enforce them is not to increase freedom, but out of the belief that society is better off when the expectations arising out of contract are satisfied. But once you have admitted that government coercion is right in this context, there is no principled reason to limit it to that. Government should use coercion whenever it results in the greatest good. That is the principle behind enforcing contracts.

Silly libertarians who do not acknowledge the social reality of contracts are blind. Thus, I have no sympathy for their arguments and I have no problem taxing their property into oblivion, as long as it is for the greater good. Property should serve people, people shouldn't serve property.

As far as the particular government program in question here, it is of course ridiculous and useless. But that is not a basis to generalize about government.

CharlesS said...

I have no problem with the state handing out money for people who drive hybrids, nor handing out money for people who install high efficiency furnaces (as Oregon) or any of the innumerable other ways that the state uses cash hand outs and tax policy to influence individual actions. It is generally a non-coercive way to include externalized costs into personal decision-making.

The goal of this policy is no different. However, the methods are completely different.

Having the police terrorize innocent people as part of such a give-back is simply insane. No one likes being stopped by the police and going through that long moment of wondering what they might have done or who they might have been mistaken for, but the first time the police pull over and are gunned down by a panicked hardened criminal, the police will realize exactly how idiotic this program is.

The idiocy of this program is entirely tangential to libertarian vs. non-libertarian arguments, this is purely a stupid people vs. non-stupid people argument.

Anonymous said...

Oh swell - maybe next the cops will break into our homes to "reward" those who buy the "right" products, brush their teeth, eat veggies, whatever.

Anonymous said...

Hey - driving a hybrid doesn't saving fuel. To save fuel, don't drive - walk or ride a bicycle - or drive less.

Driving a Chevy Suburban 100 miles/week uses less fuel than driving a hybrid 400 miles/week.

Our infatuation with hybrids is a fad, but this story is nuts.

Windypundit said...

Not to mention that pulling people over is a bit dangerous for everyone. If there's a car accident and the cop or the person being pulled over is injured when there's no legal reason for the sounds an insurance nightmare for the city.

On the other matter:

"But once you have admitted that government coercion is right in this context, there is no principled reason to limit it to that."

How about this: A really big bank has loaned me about $100,000. They do this not because they like me, or even trust me, but because I have agreed in a mortgage contract that they can take my house by force if I don't pay them back. If they couldn't force me to give up my house, they wouldn't have loaned me the money. It's to my advantage to agree to conditions where I can be coerced if I fail to meet my obligations.

Government coercion is right in this context because the parties to the contract agree to the potential coercion. That's what makes the contract a useful document: it can be enforced. Coercion when the people involved have assented to it in advance is a pretty strong principle.

Anonymous said...

How's this? A few years ago a small town just north of Wichita, Kansas would have the local police officers pull people over who exibited proper driving. They would run the tags and d.l. of those drivers and if nothing came up, give them a gift certificate as a reward for safe and legal driving. OTOH, if maybe there was a parking ticket that didnt get paid, the driver went to jail. Probable cause for the initial stop? NOT breaking any traffic laws.

Mr. Burns said...


I agree, it is for the greater good to allow a bank making a loan for a house to use the government to coerce the owner of the house into giving it up in case of non-payment on the mortgage. Indeed, it is likely their would be no loan without this background threat of coercion, thus, you could say it benefits the buyer.

But that doesn't change the principle. I did not argue that coercion to enforce contracts was not good. I am simply pointing out that it is still coercion, period.
This you have admitted. I think also that your principle comes down the same. It seems the coercion is justified since it is for the greater good -- the bank would not have even made the loan but for the possibility of coercion in the future.

So, we are still left with the same principle. Coercion for the greater good is justified. Well, this means that coercion in other areas besides contracts is justified -- you cannot support coercion here because it is for the best and not support it in other areas -- at least if you are principled and consistent.

Windypundit said...

"Coercion for the greater good is justified. Well, this means that coercion in other areas besides contracts is justified -- you cannot support coercion here because it is for the best and not support it in other areas -- at least if you are principled and consistent."

Contract enforcement is not coercion for the greater good, it's coercion for the good of those who consent to it. The key is the consent. Since contract enforcement involves conditional consent, it's not really coercion in the usual sense. The issue of consent is a "principled and consistent" means to make a distinction.

If you're looking for a chink in the libertarian armor, I think you'd do better look at enforcement in the absence of consent through contract, such as enforcement of the non-coercion principle itself: If a robber is coercing someone to get their money, how do you stop him? By coercing him. That sounds more like that "Coercion for the greater good" you're talking about.

Anonymous said...

Coercion for the greater good?

Thats the basis? Utilitarianism backed by the force of government? No limits on government power if the use of power is for the "greater good?"

What is this "good" of which you speak? How do we determine this greater good? How do we measure it? How accurate are we at determining this?

More improtantly,WHO gets to determine this greater good? Do we place no limits on their power to impose the greater good upon us? What if they are mistaken?

What if they tell us something is for the "greater good" when realy its something that would just benefit them?

What if they are vile and selfish and evil and decide that the greater good includes exterminating entire races of people?

This basis for government has only cost tens of millions of lives in the past century alone. Maybeif we give it just one more try it'll work, huh?

Tim Worstall said...

Well, Alexandria must have changed since I lived (and, in fact, was arrested) there. The idea that there were enough cops around to do this sort of stupidity would have been laughable 20 years ago.

A cretinous abuse of powers BTW.