A Dangerous Combination

If you want to know, in a down-to-earth, non-theoretical way, what’s wrong with government — not some government program, or type of government, but government itself — renew your driver’s license, or send a registered letter.

While waiting your turn at the license bureau, you might, after you’ve read all the hand-scribbled notices taped to the wall, find yourself wondering why you’re bothering with all this aggravation and expense. If you’ll promise not to tell, I’ll let you in on a secret: I’ve driven my car without any license plates, and it runs just fine that way. I’ve even driven it without having a driver’s license (I left it at home) and my driving was quite unimpaired by the deficiency. You might come to the conclusion that much government activity is pointless, except, of course, that it makes jobs for people who will surely support government as a result.

Worse, though, is the attitude of the clerks. There may very well be warm, outgoing, friendly clerks at the Motor Vehicle department, but if so, they are a rare, endangered species. More commonly, their attitude is one of bored condescension. It is a job requiring very little in the way of intelligence, ingenuity, or imagination, but offering a sizeable dollop of power. The clerk knows that you MUST (in the ordinary view of things) have the license, and to get it, you’ve got to go through him. He would have to be an exceptional person indeed not to feel a temptation to flaunt his authority, especially if the person with whom he was dealing might be construed as one of his "betters." If you want that license, you’ve got to jump through whatever hoops he holds, and if his demands are unreasonable, and his manner offensive, tough! He’s got you!

It’s similar at the post office. Like librarians, postal workers are equipped with computers that, it seems, do nothing to make the process quicker or easier. Entering the post office is like stepping back into the 19th century, computers notwithstanding. People who mail a lot of packages have probably learned to deal with one of the private carriers, like UPS, or FedEx. It’s those of us with an occasional package to mail, or registered letter to send, who end up waiting in line for some disinterested clerk to bestow his attentions upon us. If he’s having a bad day, he might decide that our package is not properly wrapped, and send us away to do it right, or at least the way he wants it. Again, by virtue of his job, rather than his qualifications or performance, he has power, and he knows how to use it.

The deadly combination is ignorance and arrogance. A lowly government clerk may be smart enough to come in out of the rain, but if his job requires him to act pursuant to some law or regulation, you can almost bet that he won’t know what that law or regulation is. He gets away with it, because nobody else knows it, either, including, probably, his superiors. He knows that in instance A, he does B; in instance C, E. He doesn’t know why, or care.

A problem arises if he encounters someone who DOES know the law. "You can’t do that; it’s not allowed." Those are not words he wants to hear! If you want to be sent to the end of the line, or made to re-complete some form, or told to re-wrap your package, just try telling the offending clerk that he’s exceeding his authority, or imposing duties upon you which aren’t prescribed by statute. You will probably win, eventually, if you’re willing to endure enough aggravation, expense, and possible humiliation. But that’s when dealing with postal clerks, or license bureau functionaries.

How different it is at the federal level! In such a case, the ignorance is, as before, massive and impenetrable, but the arrogance is far greater. These are the people who rule the world! Saving us from ourselves, and from various unspecified catastrophes, is a thankless job, in their minds; and the last thing they need is some smart Alec telling them they’re not following the law! The hell with the law! Their grand vision can’t be sidetracked by some niggling statute written years ago! The law is largely irrelevant to their work. They don’t know what it is, and don’t care to learn. Your job, as they see it, is to gratefully obey, and quit making waves. If you want to pass through life with a minimum of difficulties, and even succeed in the world, you’ll keep your mouth shut and do as you’re told. Ignorance and arrogance are a hard team to beat.

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a semi-retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.

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