I recently spent an hour-and-a-half standing outside a Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles office, waiting for the privilege of paying $72 to renew my driver’s license. I stood outside because there was no room to stand inside: the small offices were entirely occupied by the rest of the line and two—only two—employees. With relative efficiency, considering the woeful deficiency in numbers, these two extracted check after check from free citizens who were compelled to be there.
Every so often, one of the workers stepped outside to address the line. With the tone of a school teacher speaking to a room of three-year-olds, she listed the services not provided: No new registrations, no new licenses, no title transfers. With each announcement, one or two poor souls fell out and trudged woefully back to their cars, clutching battered pieces of paper.
The lady in front of me had come to cancel a registration and return her plates. She was informed that, because she had cancelled her insurance a month earlier without cancelling her registration, she was going to have to pay a fine of $200 for driving around without insurance. Never mind that of course she had sold the car before the insurance was cancelled and hadn’t even driven 10 uninsured feet: As long as a car is registered, insurance is mandatory even if the car no longer exists, and—you know—rules are rules.
On the drive back, the streets were aswarm with policemen in the latest, snazziest, black-windowed SUV police cruisers, trawling for their monthly quotas. Not even the police can pretend they are enhancing road safety or protecting the community with this fiendish monthly pickpocket. Whenever a car passes the lurking police mobile, brake lights flash in panic and the whole train of hitherto smooth-flowing traffic risks a pileup. To be warned of a speed trap by the blinking headlights of a motorist driving the other way touches the heart, and is one of the few acts of kindness not yet regulated by law. But don’t fool yourself that there aren’t people who wish it were regulated—the police in Britain have repeatedly fined drivers who flash kind-hearted warnings to oncoming traffic for “improper use of headlights.” Which is a £30 fine.
This is the tyranny of small things, of a thousand little abuses: Each infringement on our wallets, time or dignity is trivial by itself. But add them together, and freedom is squeezed into a tortured grotesque. The guilty lawmakers and bureaucrats are protected by the principle of collective responsibility. The people who legislate or impose the fines are hidden from us, like the police who wait behind their tinted windows to collect them.
If the laws are so obscure, so complicated, so onerous that thousands or even millions of well-intentioned, good citizens break at least a few every year, it might be common sense to repeal the whole gnarly jungle as unjust. But where would the government get its money? Suppose there were no $72 fee for renewing a driver’s license. And no $25 late fee? What would pay for the DMV workers and the licenses?
Our taxes. We already pay income taxes and sales taxes, and these are supposed to pay for government services. So why then do we have to pay extra just because we want—or are forced—to actually use one of those services? We’ve grown accustomed to assuming that, for our annual tax bill, the government will provide in return absolutely nothing.
Consider the operative principle behind a fine: the government says, “You’ve broken the law. Now you’re in trouble. But slip us a few bucks and we’ll pretend it never happened.” Fines are a tool of corruption. They should not exist in the legal lexicon of a free society. If the offense is serious, the malefactor belongs in jail. If the offense is not serious, it shouldn’t be an offense in the first place. Why, for example, does the government fine citizens for speeding? There is little evidence that lowering speed limits or increasing highway traffic enforcement reduces accidents—on the contrary, both speed cameras and police presence have been shown to increase the accident rate. Trust an adult to drive at a speed he can handle safely. Put up signs suggesting safe speeds and then leave it to the discretion of the driver. If he does damage, of course, he has to pay for it. But that should mean paying for the damage, not paying the government to overlook it.
If repealing bad laws and ridiculous fines one at a time seems impossibly arduous, just as legislators and bureaucrats intended, could we just repeal them all? Despite the superficial impracticality, there is also an obvious appeal to a flat-fee government. One tax bill, full-service included. Then it’s easy to see exactly what you’re getting for your money.