Getting the Little Things Wrong


The government is rarely, if ever, asked to justify its existence. That’s probably for the best: imagine the consternation if the current crop of candidates were asked to tell us why we have government in the first place! What good is it?

Those with more than half a dozen functioning neurons, however, would probably give the answer, "The government exists to protect the rights of the people," or words to that effect. And indeed, that’s what government does, at least for some of the people, some of the time. (We must not consider what it does to the rest of the people the rest of the time!)

For instance, the government’s attacks upon Afghanistan and Iraq would undoubtedly be justified by claiming that those two dreadfully powerful countries were, somehow, inimical to the safety and security of We the People, and therefore had to be destroyed. It’s for our own good, you see!

A large percentage of the people will swallow this line, at least in the beginning. After all, there is a certain grandeur in spending billions of dollars, and using high technology, to devastate enemy cities — even if there is no enemy. Maybe, in some perverse way, these assaults trigger a feeling of pride: Look what we can do!

But if we step back from the really BIG picture, and look at the little homespun ways that government interacts with us, the idea of government for protection fades, or disappears altogether.

A case in point: automobile licensure. I have received, from the Department of Revenue (NOT a department of public safety!), a notice regarding the renewal of my automobile license. It states, with regard to the form that accompanied it, "These boxes contain information you MUST read. Items listed must be submitted with your renewal in order for it to be processed." Those items are: personal property tax receipts (marked paid, of course) for the prior two years, proof of insurance, safety inspection certificate (passed, of course) and emissions testing (also passed, of course!).

It could be claimed that the safety and emissions tests contribute to public health and protection, but I know of no evidence of that. Nor is any account taken of the fact that the car in question is driven about 2500 miles per year, as opposed to smoke-belching trucks and busses, which drive tens of thousands of miles yearly.

I appreciate that a license plate can be valuable to police seeking to recover a stolen car, or apprehend bank robbers or other felons escaping by automobile. But that surely does not, in any significant way, contribute to my safety. Is it my responsibility to make the cops’ work easier? And besides, an automobile can be readily identified by a license plate that does not change during the lifetime of the vehicle. Changing the plate, or the stickers which indicate the year of expiration of that plate, only confuses the situation. My new stickers, for example, have different numbers than the old ones — too small to read, in any event, unless you’re within a few feet of the plate. Somebody, I assume, has to keep a record of the number on the new stickers, relating them to me, and my car, and changing them every year or two. How in the world does this contribute to my safety? And remember, protecting the public is the purpose, we’re told, of government.

Well, it’s all pretty obvious, isn’t it? Licensure of automobiles (among other forms of licensure!) is just an income-producing racket. It’s a business. For about 120 bux, total, I got the two dandy stickers now adorning my license plates. What makes it a state business, instead of a legitimate one, is that I had no option of declining to purchase these costly little devices. They benefit me in no way whatsoever, but were I to decline to buy them, sooner or later the state would punish me, in various ways that would be legal, because the state makes the laws. Come to think of it, that’s why I have to buy the stickers: it’s the law — and guess who made that law?

If you want to see government for what it really is, look at the little picture.

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