January 4, 2011

How Civil Liberties Die

It's not a difficult story to comprehend.  It should be easy enough to stop, if we cared enough to stop it.  But we never do.

First, there is the claim of some great evil that needs to be confronted.  It could be drugs.  It could be terrorism.  It could be smut ("think of the children!").  Doesn't matter.  Something is wrong in the world and we, as a society, need to do something about it.  It becomes The Problem.

Second, objections are made.  By the usual types.  You know, those damn ACLU liberal pinkos and their libertarian fellow travelers.  They want the drug dealers to win.  Or the terrorists.  Or the smut peddlers (or worse, they are the smut peddlers).  Regardless, they're not sufficiently seriously in thrall to The Problem.  Just ignore them.

Third, we declare War on The Problem.  The battle is joined.  Some bad guys are dealt with.  In the melee, however, a lot of pretty decent people get swept up, too.  Some folks look back and say, "hey, wait a minute, this War doesn't seem to be helping The Problem."  To which the powers that be just smile and say, "trust us."  And another part of the Fourth Amendment, or whichever, passes on.

We're in step three locally when it comes to drunk driving, specifically when it comes to drunk driving checkpoints.  Those are the barricades cops set up on local roadways on the weekends to nap drunk drivers.  Somewhat amazingly - or maybe not - the Supreme Court has suggested that the Fourth Amendment is not troubled by such roadblocks.  True, when they are done simply as crime fighting tools, that's not allowed.  But if the authorities can come up with some plausible non-criminal reason to doing it, it's OK.

Not that it's a problem if the cops did find a bag of weed or a gun in your car while they tried to smell alcohol on your breath.

OK, so, we'll take it as read that they're not unconstitutional.  But do they work?  At least enough to justify the restraint on liberty?  It doesn't look that way.  According to yesterday's Daily Mail, a study done by an admittedly involved interest group shows that for every 1000 drivers stopped, cops make three drunk driving arrests.

Think about that for a minute.  That's not even one percent of people who get stopped.  It's three percent of that one percent.  If you got three right answers on a 1000-question test you'd be . . . well, you'd be dead, I imagine.  Regardless, that's not what I would call a rousing success.

Oh, but that's not a problem.  Every law enforcement source asked about the study had basically the same answer: "Trust us.  We know it works."  It's sort of like flat Earthers or creationists, really, sidestepping reality.  And, of course, there's this sentiment:
'But I think the checkpoints are more effective than what the numbers show,' [Kanawha County Sheriff's Lt. Crosier] said.

* * *

'And anything we can do to take an impaired driver off the road should be considered effective,' Crosier said.
That sentiment usually shows up when authority figures talk about The Problem.  It sounds nice and soothes some fears, but it makes no sense.  We could eliminate drunk driving completely by getting rid of cars and forcing everybody to take public transit.  Suggest that and the cries of "Nazi!" and "socialist!" that rang out during the health care debate last year will seem calm by comparison.  But if can do anything to take one drunk off the road it's worth it, right?

The problem is not The Problem.  The problem is how we antrhopomorphize The Problem and turn it into some fairy tale bad guy who can only be vanquished by our righteous actions.  It's not about righteousness, it's about results.  Nobody is in favor of drunk driving.  The question is how is the most effective way to deal with it?  And how can we deal with it in a way that doesn't destroy the liberty of everybody else? 

In the end, there has to be a cost/benefit analysis, as no solution, even the most authoritarian one, is likely to eliminate The Problem altogether.  Drunk drivers will always be with us.  So, too, will terrorists and smut peddlers.  The bottom line is whether we're willing to sell out our fundamental freedoms in order to flail blindly at The Problem.  Unfortunately, recent history shows that we are.

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