Driver's License? We Don't Need No Stinking License

by Paul Clark

A recent editorial by Amitai Etzioni in the Washington Post discussing drivers' licenses was "brave" enough to point out that "In a civil libertarian utopia, they would not exist." Etzioni declared, "I know that driver’s licenses as a means of identification are a joke. Fake ones can still be ordered on the Internet or purchased for about $60 in many cities, and real ones can be obtained fraudulently." He had the facts to back him up. "[T]he General Accounting Office described a test in which GAO agents had been able to enter the United States using counterfeit driver’s licenses without being stopped – 25 out of 25 times in late 2002 and early 2003."

Unfortunately Etzioni then jumped to the entirely wrong conclusion, because "drivers' licenses" are all but worthless, he argued that the United States needs to include biometric information on drivers' licenses, such as fingerprints and retinal scans. (See "It’s Not Just a Driver’s License Anymore," Washington Post, May 16, 2004; page B03) As usual, Etzioni and others who advocate such measures fail to explain how putting finger prints on a license is going to stop counterfeits. It might prevent people from stealing other people's license and using it (something which is actually quite rare because it is so easy to make a counterfeit, see, but counterfeit licenses will just put the person's finger prints on the document, just as they use the person's photograph.

As usual the solution to worthless government bureaucracy is simply to redouble its worthless efforts. It is unfortunate that so many people try to justify this intrusive and utterly pointless government scheme. I have refused for more than ten years to get a drivers license (and yes, I've driven hundreds of times without one), and I know a number of other people who have done the same thing. Yet, even many so-called libertarians when they find out that I drive without a license profess to be shocked.

Let's be clear, however. Drivers' licenses have nothing to do with safety and everything to do with keeping tabs on people. If someone is driving recklessly then he or she should be stopped and can be fined or imprisoned. God knows there are enough traffic cops, and busy-bodies with cell phones to keep track of people who really do drive recklessly. Of course, it goes without saying that almost all speeding tickets (like drivers licenses) have nothing to do with safety but are a means of raising government revenue. If the person is not driving recklessly, why should the person have to "prove" to the government beforehand that he can do it, anymore than hair dressers should be required to get a license to cut hair.

Next, the driving test is a joke, which proves nothing. I did have a license when I was much younger, and the moving part of the test literally consisted of driving around the block. The only thing one had to do to pass the test was to come to a complete stop at the stop signs. The written section of the test was mostly about what the penalties were for various forms of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. None of this proves a person is a safe driver. Even the worst and most irresponsible driver can behave himself long enough to drive around the block.

While Departments of Motor Vehicles do little or nothing to ensure safety they spend most of their time verifying address and social security numbers which have absolutely nothing to do with driving. If you have not had to apply for a new license lately, you may be surprised to find out that most states are now requiring five different forms of identification.

The Virginia DMV website for example says that 2 pieces of regular ID are required, plus three addition documents to prove legal presence in the US, proof of state residence and proof of social security number. Pretty much all states require a driver to notify DMV whenever the person moves. This is really the primary reason for drivers' licenses: to keep track of where people live, so they can know where to pick you up if the state decides to arrest you. Your home address has no bearing on how well you drive.

If divers' licenses really were about safety all that would be needed would be a card with the person's name and photograph. The address is irrelevant, in fact even name is irrelevant. Why not just have a picture and say the above-pictured individual is certified a safe driver? It would not need to be issued by a government either. For example, scuba diving certification cards (which are required to rent scuba equipment) come with a person's name and photograph and nothing else. If drivers' licenses were about safety they would be no different. You don't need to prove your social security number or address to prove you are certified to scuba dive.

Next, I don't think there is any doubt that drivers' licenses do nothing to reduce accidents. My evidence for this is a study conducted by the National Highway Transportation Safety Board (NHTSB) in 1989 which found that there was no difference in accident rates between states which required vehicle inspection and states that did not. People do not want to get into life threatening accidents and will tend to repair brakes and such on their own without the government looking over their shoulder. That is not quite the same thing as driver inspection, but if government inspection of vehicles does little or nothing to change accident rates (and people are more likely to cut corners on costly repairs) the argument is even stronger that people will tend to drive carefully regardless of whether the government certifies them beforehand.

Still, one might wonder: even if drivers' licenses are so worthless why all the fuss? Surely there are worse and even more intrusive government programs. I don't doubt there are worse programs, but acceptance of government "licenses" is all part of one massive government bureaucracy which controls our lives at every turn. From licenses required for a person to cut hair, or drive cabs, or own a gun, or get married, or build an addition on one's house, or pretty much anything else for which government permission is required is a diminution of liberty. All government licenses should be opposed on principle. (One can argue about extreme outliers such as buying dynamite, but for ordinary everyday activities we should never need government permission.)

For anyone claiming to be libertarian to support or defend needing the government's permission to drive a car is a violation of the basic principle that the government should leave citizens alone except in rare instances when one citizen harms another or at least directly threatens another through recklessness. Licenses are simply one more way for the leviathan to squeeze more money out of citizens and help to control virtually every significant action the ordinary person takes throughout his life. We need to ask for the government's permission to work, to get married and to drive. Enough is enough. As with most licenses, the response of every freedom living individual should be: "License! We don't need no stinking license."