Monday, January 13, 2003
If you're stuck in a long line of cars behind a silver Ford Taurus wagon with Virginia Tech, American flag, and Christian fish stickers that's going exactly the speed limit, be it 15 or 75, you can blame my Political Theory teacher (Dr. Davis). You see, the law says that the maximum speed at which you or I may drive on state-maintained roads is the posted speed limit. Now, as we all know, that doesn't mean that this is the fastest that you can drive (you'll have to trust me on this one, not that I would have any experience driving at speeds slightly above reckless...).
Why should I obey this law, though? For over four years I sped, and never once received a ticket for speeding. If you only go about five or ten over the limit and don't go faster than marked cars (or Crown Victorias with blue things in the back window), the odds of your getting pulled over are pretty small. Is anyone really hurt by your speeding? Isn't more good done by you spending less time in transit and more time being productive?
The reason one should obey traffic laws is for the same reason one should obey any other law: it is not only respect for your fellow citizens, but a buttressing of our society. A long time ago, men first got together and forged the first social contract. It was probably something simple, like "you stay there, I'll stay here, and neither of us will kill the other so long as it stays that way." Actually, modern social contracts aren't really much more than this. They are simply agreements that state, in essence, that everyone's rights will be protected against undue intrusion, and that there will be consequences for this undue intrusion, generally in the form of the society uniting against the intruder. They may have other layers, such as stating that a fundamental human right is to have enough food and shelter to survive so long as a person is working or at least attempting to do so, but these, if examined closely, are still basically the same as the initial premise, with an idea, such as death, taking the place of a human. The social contract seeks to prevent bullying by those with more resources, since so long as no individual has more power than the rest of society combined, it is he who stands to lose from any conflict. All laws are (theoretically, at least) designed to protect rights, and punishments are designed to induce criminals to re-evaluate the risks of violating the social contract. Stealing is prohibited because it deprives a person of his goods without the benefit of due process. If caught after the fact, society unites, hunts down a suspect, determines whether or not he is guilty through the due process of a trial with strict rules of evidence and procedure, and then, if guilty, sentences him according to pre-set guidelines and attempts to return the property to the victim. This is superior to the state of nature, since someone like me probably wouldn't have the resources to track down a person who stole my credit card number (yes, I know that credit cards wouldn't exist in the state of nature). This also begins to touch on why laissez-faire libertarianism is flawed, but speaking on that is not my intention in this post.
As I drive, and I'm sure you also notice, cars whiz by me. As I tend to be right on the speed limit, this means that either my spedometer is broken or that they're speeding and thus breaking the law. Now, I know that the general will of the good people of the Commonwealth of Virginia is for the speed limit to be 35 mph on Telegraph Road and 65 mph on I-81 except around Harrisonburg and Roanoke. I know this because the signs posted by the Commonwealth along the roadside state the speed limit. If Virginians wanted it to be 100 mph on all roads and actually cared enough about it to want it changed, then it would be changed. Parts of Montana have no speed limit, and that state has experienced neither divine vengeance nor the USAF bombing Butte or Helena. Virginians appear to care more about prohibiting late-term abortions, eliminating the car tax, and funding public schools than increasing the speed limit on I-81to 70 mph so as to match West Virginia. If we decided that, by gum, we wanted to up the speed limit, the Faster Roads Party would gain seats in local assemblies and one or both of the major parties would begin supporting it. If the support for changing the law isn't greater than that of maintaining the status quo, then the general will is in favor of the latter. Therefore, we know that it is our will to restrict all drivers on I-81 to 65 mph unless otherwise marked (Roanoke just has to be different). However, most people still violate their covenant with their neighbor and break the law. Very rarely is this done in order to save lives, and most of the time it is broken it is by police cars chasing lawbreakers or ambulances or fire trucks trying to save lives. Most people speed because they get bored while driving long distances and want to reduce that time or because they didn't allot enough time for their trip and thus need to break the law in order to keep on schedule.
Breaking the law, no matter how small the statute, has many negative effects. Most obviously, you become a lawbreaker and can be disciplined by the police and courts. In Virginia, it also means that you cannot collect on your insurance if an accident results from your poor judgement. It also makes a person undisciplined, since if you can't be expected to follow something as simple as driving below a certain speed, why should you be expected to be competent to do something like vote? It also sets a bad example for children. If they see mommy and daddy breaking the law, why should they follow the rules their parents set for them? Lastly, there is the simple honor of the thing. As a citizen, you tacitly agree (explicitly, if you've been naturalized) to follow the laws of the various governments by which you are governed. When you intentionally break the law, you lie, and state that you believe that your opinion is more important than the combined opinions of the rest of society.
Personally, I've found driving the speed limit to be more relaxing. I just set the cruise control and lean back, generally moving out of the way of people who try to pass me. It's not my job to enforce the laws, just to obey them.
UPDATE: Jeffrey Collins comments. I'd considered adding a theological dimension to my argument, but I decided not to for two reasons. First, I liked the way this turned out, and I'm not sure I could've added more without some major revision. Secondly, I'll probably incorporate his point into an upcoming post on theology.