Really, it should have been a perfect day: high August sun in a cloudless blue sky, summery warmth, out for a drive — except that I was headed for my state’s Department of Motor Vehicles; the dreaded DMV. That prospect changed everything.
My boy and I were en route to a court appointment. Weeks previously, he’d received an enigmatic but ominous summons to appear on such-and-such a date. The purpose? Determining if he’d be able to retain his license. For my wife and me, and obviously for him, his loss of driving privileges would constitute a catastrophe; so we were concerned.
The good news? Literally two minutes into the state-mandated interrogation, the DMV official declared the entire matter a mystifying misunderstanding, a bureaucratic bungle on the part of a state functionary. “I don’t even know why they made you come here,” he editorialized flippantly but mirthlessly. Hardy-har-har.
Oh, did I mention the state complex is more than thirty miles from our front step? That my son had made repeated attempts to resolve the matter via a) telephone and b) email? (using two different addresses the essentially useless go-betweens had provided before finally informing him, “Well, you’re going to have to come up here anyway.”) That the DMV’s little “oops” moment cost him a day’s pay? (he missed work in order to find out the licensing-gods had perpetrated a data-entry boo-boo.)
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All of it dismissed with a perfunctory, Hmm, I don’t even know why you had to come here …
Sauntering out of the utilitarian-drab facilities we obviously were relieved; but also a little exasperated. Over my shoulder, I muttered to my son, “That’s why you don’t want government running our healthcare.”
Let me add, this irksome court encounter regarding motoring issues was the second in the past few months for my family — and the previous experience was similarly sparked by a processing screw-up from civil-servant powers-that-be.
Yeah, def don’t want anything like this bunch managing our health care — or retirement planning, or children’s education, or career-development … You get the point.
Rest assured, this is no appeal for anarchy. Logic endorses the need for some sensible legal and civic structure over a society. As did our Founders (see: the Declaration of Independence and Constitution). As does our Creator (Romans 13, 1 Peter 2). Human nature, both individually and corporately, demands an official apparatus of some kind for protecting a nation’s sovereignty, upholding its laws, prosecuting lawlessness, etc. No disputing, there are a few comparatively narrow responsibilities tasked to the “general government” of the United States. They are to be “few and defined” as America-shaping luminary James Madison emphasized in Federalist 45.
Thus, that crew which met, along with Madison, in Philadelphia one hot, 1787 summer, crafting a foundational document which outlined the form and function of their newly established nation’s government. Washington, DC retains the duty to dispose of those specific obligations as effectively and efficiently as possible.
Beyond that? State or local governments, or even more preferably, private sector efforts — what Edmund Burke styled the “little platoons” (families, churches, voluntary social organizations)– are on the hook.
Even then, basic decency requires we bring up that hoary principle of “personal
responsibility”. Remember that one? Y’know, men and women doing what they must to care for themselves, to avoid burdening others. An individual making choices, fully prepared to bear the consequences of those choices, good or bad. With no presumption that someone else would necessarily sweep in to save the day if things go sour, making all the fall-out go away.
It’s a tension which has perdured for all of America’s existence; come to that , for all human history: a person’s accountability to tend to his/her own needs, as opposed to counting on some other person or grouping of persons. Washington, Franklin, Adams and company were certainly aware of that balancing act. They’d mounted a revolutionary war in its cause, midwifing a nation the like of which had never before been seen.
America 2015? She’s moved way beyond that closely disciplined, limited-government, personal-responsibility-heavy conception, hasn’t she. Nowadays, too many make a mess and blithely expect someone else will clean it up. With heartbreaking frequency that “clean-up” effort somehow involves looming State officials and tax-payer funds.
Or one of us conceives an idea, a notion to improve our or others’ lives. What must we do first? Show up at a government station, hat in hand, tugging our forelock to gain authorization. Check this box, sign off on that line, procure this form, pay that fee.
Nowadays, it’s well-nigh impossible getting the Federal government — or other expressions of government — out of our faces; expandingly, we can’t chase them out of our heads, either. Start a business? Build a structure on your property? Burn coal? Cut down a tree? Tweak your thermostat? Flush your toilet? The Nannies on the Potomac — or those nested in your state capitols — will become involved. They’ll shuffle their papers, make their notations in impenetrable government speak, tap on their keyboards, maybe get it right; maybe not. We labor under the results.
In 1840, Tocqueville warned of “a new kind of servitude which covers the surface of society with a network of complicated rules … it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”
Gee, does that ring a bell?
Hence, Jefferson’s alarum: “bind [government powers] down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution”. The reflex should extend to our Federal Constitution, state constitutions, local compacts: demand civic authorities discharge the basics for which they were designed, discharge them well – and, studiously, do nothing more.
And every citizen? Be aggressively, reliably busy maintaining order in his/her own house.
A widespread resurrection of that kind of mindset could salvage our beleaguered nation, our healthcare mess. It also might prevent a fine August day from being soiled by an unpleasant, wholly superfluous, government-sponsored interruption.