Skip to content

The Government is Threatening You


Whatever else may be special or unique about government power, its monopoly on the use of force is paramount. Only the government has unfettered authority to use force. To the extent citizens have that power, it is entirely at the discretion of government-defined law. What does it mean, then, when the government seeks to ensure compliance with the law through the use of threats?

Let’s step back for a moment to talk about laws. I’ve mentioned before that laws can be used either to reinforce existing norms or set new ones. They can also make behavior consistent across a population, essentially forcing the non-compliant portion to comply with a new norm, under pain of legal consequences. Laws can also revolve around protecting the safety of the public.

Driving is one domain where safety issues are of supreme concern. Speeding, reckless driving, drunk driving, texting while driving, and driving poorly-maintained vehicles all represent hazards to the public. In particular, as cell phones became ubiquitous devices, norms began to develop in which people talked and even texted while driving. Hands-free technology has been considered a solution to the former problem, under the assumption that having one hand occupied with holding a phone makes a driver less nimble and responsive. Laws have been written to mandate hands-free technology, even though they don’t necessarily improve safety. Texting while driving, however, is another issue entirely. There is no way to make it safer: having to look at a screen and press keys is hopelessly distracting, and thus dangerous. The government has a vested interest in stopping this.

Ad campaigns have generally focused on texting as a safety issue. If you text while driving, you’re much more likely to get in an accident that will hurt or kill you or people you care about. It’s a compelling argument, except people commonly fall victim to what’s known as illusory superiority. Basically, most people think they are far more competent than they really are. This goes for driving, too. All those other drivers might be bad at texting while they drive, but the individual doing it will tend to think they’ve got it down. They can do it safely, they’re certain.

This has been a deadly assumption. In the US, over a million accidents and thousands of deaths per year are attributed to driving while texting. It’s clearly a serious problem, and simply outlawing it and admonishing people of the safety risk appears to be of limited effectiveness. State governments have thus turned away from stressing safety and more toward issuing threats: U DRIVE, U TEXT, U PAY, the signs say. Similar campaigns surround seat belts and drunk driving, too. CLICK IT OR TICKET. YOU DRINK, YOU DRIVE, YOU LOSE. (We can see where the texting slogan got its inspiration.)

But is it appropriate for the government to issue threats to its citizens this way? I see no reason to object to safety-minded signs and ads, although their effectiveness is debatable. Signs that dispassionately list fine amounts, in my mind, don’t cross the line into threats. But billboards and TV commercials that promise you’ll be stopped and punished if you engage in these behaviors, I’m not so sure about.

There are people who believe the US is already a police state, or on its way to becoming one. It is admittedly a concept that’s hard to define, and I am hesitant to speculate whether we currently are a police state or are on the path to being one. What I can say with more confidence is that a government which leverages threats against its citizens to ensure compliance with the law is in more danger of adopting police state tactics than a government which takes a softer approach. Governments serve their people, not the other way around. This is a detail that should never be forgotten in any action a government takes. It is perfectly fine to protect public safety. It is harder to justify threatening the public in order to achieve that safety.

To keep this in perspective: I don’t believe this is a huge problem. The government is not running amok, destroying people’s lives because they’re driving and texting. In fact, in the face of all the serious police abuses happening in this country, it’s pathetically small potatoes–almost irrelevant. Even so, I think it’s all of a piece. It’s evidence of a government that cares more about law and order than caring for its people. Indeed, the use of punitive fines and criminal punishments fit right into this narrative. Traffic fines are used to shore up municipal and state coffers in lieu of appropriate taxation and budgeting. The private prison industry makes millions from keeping people locked up. When vague threats of punishment are backed by a system known to be racist and exploitative, I think they are harder to overlook.

There are many, many things about our criminal justice system that need to be reformed. While we’re looking at ways to make our system more humane, let’s consider how these campaigns are targeted at people, as well. If the government has to threaten people to get its way, perhaps what’s being pursued isn’t safety, equity, or justice, but something more ominous.