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Perfect state or police state?

One of the things that has been hard for me to get used to about living in the US is the feeling of being policed at every turn. Here, my life is filled with a multitude of rules and regulations, along with a strong presence of law enforcement officials to make sure that I follow them. Of course there are obvious advantages to a society like this. Things run smoothly and efficiently. There is less corruption and bribery. I feel safe. On the flip side though, I feel like I the price of this increased efficiency and safety is that I relinquish a certain degree of personal freedom.

As a South African, I’m used to having more leeway, simply because back home there aren’t as many rules, and they aren’t policed with nearly as much vigor as they are here. Take a minor thing like parking. In San Francisco, there are a thousand things you need to think about when parking your car. Do you have a permit to park in this particular residential zone? What colour is the pavement? Are you parked out of street cleaning hours, in front of a fire hydrant, or on a street corner? Are your wheels are turned inwards if you’re parked on an incline? Is there more than enough money in the meter? Even if all these rules were in place back home, I think I’d have about a 60% chance of getting away with at least one of them. Here, there’s no question about whether you will get caught or not. A friend of mine recently parked her car outside her house, unwittingly blocking wheelchair access between the pavement and the street. Returning to her car ten minutes later, she was greeted with a $300 fine.

And that’s just parking. There are fines for jaywalking ($300), littering ($1000) and driving in a carpool lane when there are less than three people in the car ($300). If you get caught driving over the legal alcohol limit, this fact stays on your employment record permanently and affects your credit rating. Undercover cops regularly visit liquor stores, supermarkets and bars to check that they aren’t serving alcohol to minors. There are lots of rules for even the smallest details, and they’re all heavily enforced.

The consequence of not being able to get away with much is that the high probability of being punished for breaking the law outweighs the perceived benefits. This can be said for more serious crimes too, such as theft and assault. Of course there are other major reasons for the low crime rate here — the gap between the rich and the poor here is smaller, unemployment is lower and there are fewer people living below the poverty line — but still, the tangible presence of the police on a day to day basis surely must discourage potential criminals. And let’s not forget that one percent of all Americans are in jail, which means that criminals simply aren’t free to walk the streets.

Living in this law-abiding society, where even the most minor rule is followed, at times I feel like I am a sheep that’s being closely watched and herded through a very narrow pen. I miss not having to think so hard about where to park, or being able to cross the road wherever I like, or not having to carry my ID with me whenever I go to a bar or supermarket. The positives, though, are obvious. There are fewer road accidents, and hardly any road deaths as a result of drunk driving. I can walk home at night by myself and things will probably be ok, and I have just a single lock on my door with no need for electric fences, lasers or panic buttons.

Perhaps the key is to find a balance of these two extremes; to live in a place that runs smoothly and where I feel safe, but that is still somewhere where I don’t feel stifled and over-regulated. I suspect that unless I don’t live in a city at all, that search will be a challenge.