The Tyranny of Small Things

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.

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14 responses to “The Tyranny of Small Things

  • As a child of the ’50s, I remember when the open road speed limit in much of the West was “RAP”- reasonable and proper. If you could keep it on the pavement and not hit anything, you were golden. Freed of being glorified meter-maids, the Highway Patrol actually-get this-patrolled the highways for motorists in need of assistance. Good times,good times. Damm,I’m getting old….

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  • All true but you lost me at speeding…then serious injury to an unsuspecting pedestrian…sure you jail the driver but what about the pedestrian?(he still injured or dead) Although I get the point of ticketing unnecessary violations

  • The Lesson of Politics is power; and the remedy is always very simple.

    If ordinary people will primary all the legislators who fail to put this – and so much else – right, suddenly you will see a transformation across the land and all of it for the better.

    But not until then.

    For example, in Poland a governing party agreed to Mrs Merkel’s mad plan for lodging millions of ‘refugees’ all over the EU; so at the next election it lost in a landslide and a different, patriotic, nationalist party won massively
    .
    No politician in Poland now so much as contemplates taking any foreign ‘refugees’ in.

  • “If you do damage you pay for it.” It’s not that simple. In the age of motor vehicles weighing tons, easily going in excess of 50 (you do not even need to be going that fast), you can do catastrophic damage to the human body. While cars are certainly safer, the laws of physics still apply. Throw in all the drivers distracted with their smart phones. How many people can pay out of pocket for their own normal medical expenses, let alone pony up for causing a serious or catastrophic injury to themselves and others?

    Therefore, you need a license, and registration (which requires maintaining minimal liability insurance). If you can afford a car, you can probably afford insurance too, even if you can’t afford to pay major medical bills. Which means, even if you can take someone to court, and get a judgement for 3 million dollars of medical bills, what good is it if you are hit by an uninsured motorists with no cash, no assets, nothing. Your judgment is a worthless peace of paper. Sure, you can put him in jail too, but that doesn’t help with the medical bills does it?

    And, I hope we’d agree you need to have some kind of minimal competence to drive.

    So while we all know the DMV across the nation could do a better job, with everything, I do not think the solution is a bunch of unlicensed, insolvent , incompetent, and uninsured motorists, oh yeah, and with no speed limits either. No thanks.

    • What we really need is training. Lots and lots of driver training, more than any of that other stuff. Don’t make a left turn from a travel lane. Don’t hit your brakes before turning on your signal. Pass to the left, keep to the right.

      All of the piddling rules and regs on the road and the forest of signs everywhere simply reflect the complete and utter lack of actual training in the USA — were we had training like the Germans, and were we to take driving as seriously as there, half the idiots on the road in the USA would vanish overnight.

      • Indeed, if only we could train all drivers overnight, the problem would vanish overnight ;)

    • don’t the tens of millions uninsured illegal drivers negate a need for much of anything else?

      • Don’t they have a human right to a driver’s license in states like New York and California, regardless of citizenship? Where they presumably can also drive to the polls to vote without being citizens, in the millions…

  • A touch of cognitive dissonance here, on cops using minor motor vehicle violations to write expensive tickets, to fill the coffers.
    I seem to remember this was part of the consent decree DOJ forced on the Ferguson, MO cops.

  • “… could we just repeal them all?”
    Dream on, Daniel Gelernter … you should change your name to Don Quixote … oh wait, there’s a fee for that, isn’t there?

  • This is a concrete experience of Tocqueville’s “network of small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules,” that “cover the surface of society” and “which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot break through to go beyond the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them and directs them.”

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