This morning, the red light camera debate was joined in the Tampa Tribune in a “Faceoff” between Tom Jackson (Pro) and Joe Henderson (Con). If you haven’t been following this issue, the two columns do a decent job of identifying some of the relevant data points and articulating some of the core issues.
They also illustrate two very different approaches to making a persuasive argument.
One (Mr. Jackson’s), after an opening paragraph that states the opposition’s summary assessment of red light cameras in exaggerated terms, begins with a sweeping assertion of the purpose of government:
The fundamental purpose of government is the good maintenance of law and order.
If one accepts this premise, there is a sense that the burden of proof may shift. Instead of having to justify the intrusion or inconvenience that red light cameras are said by some to impose on us, the advocate simply must demonstrate that they are an enforcement tool (which isn’t difficult) and defend against criticisms of their appropriateness and effectiveness.
This is precisely what Mr. Jackson then sets out to do. He acknowledges that there have been abuses of the technology in the name of something other than public safety. He addresses other policy steps that might both increase safety and diminish the more problematic applications of red light cameras. And he advocates for the principle of subsidiarity, though he doesn’t use the term, the notion that decisions should be made as close to the people most affected by the decision as is practicable. In the case of traffic regulation, Mr. Jackson suggests that those decisions can and should be made at the municipal level.
One can counter some of Mr. Jackson’s analysis; he makes some fairly debatable points. But in terms of logic, his analysis lays out a clear path to understanding one of the critical criteria for evaluating the role of red light cameras and invites consideration of appropriate concerns and remedies.
Of course, if one rejects the premise . . . if one does not believe that governments exist fundamentally for the purpose of maintaining law and order . . . then the rest of the argument isn’t interesting. Mr. Jackson’s approach allows the reader to make that judgment very early, if he or she chooses, and skip to the sports pages if the premise is flawed.
On that ground, however, I suspect that Mr. Jackson is fairly safe. Whatever else we might think government’s purposes include, “security,” “safety” and similar terms are commonly found in most declarations of purpose.
Mr. Henderson takes a very different approach. He tells a dramatic story about an individual who was fined $158 for running a red light on his way to the hospital. Apparently, he actually ran the red light. This wasn’t a rolling stop followed by a right turn, or a bare encroachment across the stop bar. No . . . he stopped because the light was red, then ran the red light. These events were captured by a red light camera and he received a ticket for the infraction.
Put differently, this gentleman broke the law, was caught, and was fined.
Of course, there is more to the story. The gentleman was driving himself to the hospital emergency room because he thought he was experiencing a heart attack (by the way, medical professionals generally recommend against driving yourself to the hospital under such conditions, for obvious reasons, but never mind). He thought he had waited too long for the light to change, given his state of distress, and so he ran the red light.
And he was fined.
Forgive me if I’m puzzled. I’m just having a hard time figuring out how this story tells us anything about whether or not red light cameras improve public safety. Neither does it demonstrate, as Mr. Henderson suggests, that red light cameras are a “cash grab” or an extraordinary intrusion of the government into our private lives á la George Orwell’s 1984. Anyone familiar with the original “Big Brother” would recognize some truth in the assertion . . . but I question whether someone being ticketed for actually running a red light constitutes “the most egregious example of Orwellian excess in the name of safety,” as Mr. Henderson suggests. Such language almost certainly is more appropriately applied, at least argumentatively, to what the NSA has been doing with our private communications than with what a red light camera captures in a busy public intersection.
There is more to Mr. Henderson’s column. He brings some data to the table, and he offers some solid criticism. But to the extent that the “con” position is built on this story and these assertions, it raises serious questions about the credibility of the position.
One can reasonably debate the merits of red light cameras in terms of their impact on public safety. One can critique their implementation, the fee structure, and the management of light phases. One is free to explore motives, to “follow the money” to see who the ultimate beneficiaries are, and who pays what price for what benefit to whom. One also can raise concerns about whether or not monitoring public spaces with cameras is a threat to our liberty, and under what circumstances.
One can tell a good story, too. Stories have their place, though logicians may disagree. We are emotional creatures, and sometimes truths lie buried under mountains of cold analysis until our consciences are pricked or our hearts broken.
But if we seek to enhance public discourse, a good story needs to be logically connected to the claim we want to make, not just viscerally attached to our popular prejudices.