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Op-ed

How Greg Abbott's libertarian renaissance is benefiting the state of Texas

People like freedom

ergio Flores/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Before reading this article, you might want to sit down, because I'm going to open with a contention that will blow your mind: People like freedom.

Businesses like freedom, which is why Texas has been one of the top 10 states for economic growth, by any measure, for the last decade-plus. Under the leadership of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and his predecessor, Rick Perry, Texas has created an environment that has fostered economic freedom and growth, which has also led to massive population growth in the Lone Star State, as numerous businesses have fled less business-friendly climates like California and New York to relocate to Texas, bringing jobs with them.

But lately, Abbott has been working hard to make Texas a more freedom-centered state for individuals, as well — sometimes at the expense of powerful corporations.

For instance, Abbott recently signed legislation banning all red light cameras in Texas. This move comes at the expense of big business, which reaps huge rewards from the revenue provided by red light cameras. Since 2007, red light camera companies have reaped tens of millions of dollars in profit from Texas citizens by operating red light cameras.

The red light camera industry is an ongoing corporate racket that lines the pockets of big business at the expense of citizens' due process and privacy rights. Generally, cities do not merely purchase the equipment from camera manufacturers, but instead enter into ongoing contracts with the vendors, allowing them to keep a portion of the revenue from the tickets in exchange for mailing out the tickets, collecting the fines, and managing the appeals process.

In effect, cities that have red-light cameras generally allow private corporations to become an officially sanctioned kangaroo court. By law or ordinance, citizens are usually prevented from even arguing that the cameras are improperly calibrated or otherwise not functioning correctly. In most locations that use red light cameras, drivers are likewise prevented from arguing that they were not the person who drove the car through the red light; if you own the car, you have to pay the fine.

Research on the efficacy of red light cameras has been mixed. Some research has suggested that at certain intersections, red light cameras might improve driver safety; however, at most intersections the best way to improve red light safety is to redesign the intersection or improve the programming of the traffic signal. Accordingly, Texas passed a law several years ago requiring municipalities that use red light cameras to conduct an independent engineering study to determine whether red light cameras were actually necessary to promote safety at a given intersection, rather than merely to generate revenue for the city.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many cities ignored this law and operated red light cameras illegally, leading to a number of class action lawsuits against cities that operated programs in violation of the law, and ultimately to the legislation that ended the red light camera program in Texas entirely.

Even setting aside the revenue generation aspect of the red light program, its very existence ought to be offensive to basic American notions of freedom. When legal violations are caught and punished by a police officer who is physically present, society is able to make an informed decision about the extent to which they are turning into a police state. If suddenly a stretch of road had tens of thousands of police officers doing nothing but catching people who ran red lights (or traveled over the speed limit), city council meetings would immediately be flooded by angry citizens about the intrusion on their every day lives.

On the other hand, when violations of the law are caught and punished by an omnipresent hidden eye, society quietly takes another step towards the Orwellian nightmare world described in "1984." Citizens should be wary of any technology that allows the government to quietly watch and monitor our activities without an actual physical law enforcement officer present. We are already coming very close to a world where the government is able to view a video recording of every public space at any time; anything that furthers the government's ability to electronically spy on us should be resisted unless its existence can be justified by the direst of needs.

The lesson of Texas' red light camera program was simple: even in Texas, cities simply cannot be trusted to respect the due process rights of their citizens when a cozy source of revenue is on the line. Kudos to Texas for ending the program, and here's hoping more states do the same.

Second, governor Abbott signed legislation last week allowing businesses to deliver beer and wine to the homes of Texas residents. Unlike with the red light camera legislation, this was one area where personal freedom and corporate profit happily aligned.

The liquor industry has been beset with a bevy of nanny state regulation since time immemorial. Some of it makes at least some sense, but other aspects of the regulatory framework serve no obvious purpose other than to make the purchase of a legal substance inconvenient and expensive.

That's the case with the laws of many states that prohibit the delivery of alcoholic beverages to private residences. Such laws do not make the population safer; if anything, they are deleterious to safety. Allowing home delivery of beer and wine keeps half inebriated drivers off the road when they run out of alcohol, after all. Every other substance in your local grocery store can be delivered to homes now, and there's no reason to treat alcohol differently. Again, Texas is taking a step in the right direction.

The third and perhaps most important reform signed into law by Gov. Abbott involves free speech on campus. It is no secret to anyone who has been paying attention to the news that free speech — particularly speech that expresses a mainstream conservative viewpoint — has been under assault on campus.

Part of the assault has been at the hands of liberal students, who have attempted to exercise a heckler's veto over conservative organizations and speakers on college campuses, but in many cases college administrations have been willing participants in the stifling of conservative speech. Sometimes through overt suppression, but more often through charging conservative speakers bogus fees — ostensibly to cover security, but in reality to make it cost prohibitive to host conservative events.

The bill signed by Gov. Abbott addresses both prongs of the ongoing assault on free speech on campus by providing penalties for both students and faculty who unduly interfere with the expression of free speech on campus, and requiring universities to allow students to assemble and distribute material on campus without obtaining a permit from or paying fees to the university.

Overall, the last 20 years in Texas has shown that freedom works, and that if citizens are protected from undue interference from either the government or from government-empowered corporations, a state will prosper, as Texas has. Let's hope all the people who are moving to Texas from other states take notice.

One last thing…
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