I have driven hundreds of thousands of miles in my life. I currently choose to drive a manual because I like the degree of control it offers on the operation of the car. I have also long self-maintained my vehicles and do not appreciate the decisions made by car-makers that have made it more and more difficult for me to maintain my own vehicle. I especially do not appreciate the role of government in making my car more difficult to maintain.
My first encounter with this was about thirty years ago when the air conditioner in my car stopped working as well as it previously had, due to slow leakage of freon from the unit. I decided to refill the freon in my A/C unit, but when I went to the parts store, I was told that I could no longer buy freon because it was considered a dangerous greenhouse gas. The government had determined that unless I had the proper certifications as a heating and cooling expert, I was not capable of safely refilling the freon in my car, and should therefore be prevented from doing so. I had to pay someone else to do what I was perfectly capable of doing myself because someone else decided that they were a better judge of what was good for me and the people around me than I was.
“But”, you may say, “freon destroys the ozone layer and should be handled by people who know what they are doing.” This goes to the fundamental question about where personal choice and personal responsibility affect the entire community, and where should lie the boundaries of what government can tell people about what they can and cannot do. Once again we find that the issue is not at all simple, and reasonable people may disagree about where the bounds should be. But this boundary is precisely what divides us in today’s politics and is giving so many people so much anxiety.
Yes, I agree that freon is not necessarily the best thing to have available to all people, because those who do not know what they are doing may release it into the atmosphere and this could affect everyone. Whether or not I buy into the entire argument about the ozone layer and global warming, you may be surprised to hear that I consider myself an environmentalist, as I believe that we should try to keep the environment as clean as reasonably possible, and indiscriminate pollution is not good for anybody.
But I also recognize that just because someone has a certificate from the government deeming them an ‘expert’ on any particular issue does not make it so. Passing some HVAC certification test cannot be that difficult, and given the time, money, and inclination, I could easily do so. There are also plenty of people who carry the certification of being an ‘HVAC expert’ who are complete idiots whom I would certainly not trust to fixing my air conditioner, and speak nothing of their ability to be stewards of the environment.
So what has the exercise of making people certify as HVAC experts done? It has 1) created a new level of bureaucracy; 2) made it more difficult and expensive for the average person to have comfortable and cool air; and 3) theoretically prevented the release of a dangerous gas into the environment by people who do not know what they are doing. I would argue that #1 and #2 are clearly bad, and #3 is clearly good. So we must try to balance these factors to decide if this is an exercise worth doing. This is the calculus of modern politics which factors deeply into who we are and what we believe. I am willing to accept the regulation of freon if you are willing to accept the fact the #1 and #2 are true, and also recognize that the bureaucracy itself has a conflict of interest when making these decisions.
We can go on and apply these ideas to many other aspects of driving and automobiles. It has become more and more expensive over the years to replace my car’s oil and oil filter, and the engine designers certainly have not made it any easier for me to do the job myself. The government has influence over the car manufacturers pushing them to make this more difficult and also charges disposal fees for handling used motor oil. These items all once again go into a personal calculation that I must make in trying to decide whether it is worth the time and trouble to do the job myself or to pay someone else to do it. Personally this decision has been made much easier by the fact that 1) due to advances in engine design cars do not need nearly the number of oil changes they used to; 2) car manufacturers have provided many of my oil changes as part of warranties purchased when I bought my cars; and 3) I have better things to do with my time than spend it replacing oil. But it is nice to know that it is a choice, and I would prefer that this choice not be taken away from me.
“But wait,” you may say, “it is the actions of the government that have brought about #1 and #2 above, and these have led to clear benefits for society.” To some extent I will agree. Government standards for car engines have in part driven the innovations in the industry, and the benefits include not only the time and trouble saved, but also through preventing people from throwing away their own used motor oil we can prevent carcinogens from seeping into the water table and damaging the environment and public health. There is a level of compromise we can find on these issues, and that is what the political system is all about. There will also always be kooks and fear-mongering on both sides of these issues, but hopefully we can find a moderate position and cooler heads will prevail.
The problem is that we cannot have these disagreements and discussions if a fair venue for the debate cannot be found, and more and more over the years the venue has been tilted unfairly to the benefit of the ones who are running the show. The thumb on the scale has been provided by the bureaucracy itself, which benefits regardless of the outcome of the debate. To use the analogy of the casino, the house always wins. It is no accident that the richest communities in the country surround Washington, D.C.
This is where the United States has historically been able to differentiate itself from our European counterparts. From the time of our founding the American ideal includes a fundamental skepticism and distrust of government itself. That is why our system was built with a large number of checks-and-balances in order to try to prevent those entrusted with leadership from abusing their power. And to a large extent this has been a very successful experiment, with the country flourishing and leading the world in almost any measure imaginable. Standard of living? Check. Wealth? Check. Personal freedom? Check.
But then we start to run into a few places where our European counterparts may have us beat. Personal happiness? We do not necessarily top the list there. Time off for dedication to leisure, family, or other personal pursuits? Nope, we clearly don’t win there (although we could certainly argue that this is again a matter of personal choice). Health care? While I would argue that we clearly lead the world in the quality of health care that we can deliver, and we lead the world in medical innovation, we have not led the world in providing an adequate level of health care to all of our citizens. And herein lies the divide that we find in our modern politics. How much personal freedom do we need to sacrifice in order to maximize the benefit for all?
We will return to health care later, but let me get back to the subject of this current discussion, driving. President Obama notoriously created a sensation with his statement “You didn’t build that,” which was a revealing moment in his presidency. The statement showed where he stood on this spectrum we are talking about – community versus individuality – and was so divisive and inflammatory not just because it was dismissive of the beliefs of approximately half of the electorate, but mainly because it was delivered in such a condescending manner. Not only was Barack Obama claiming that he was right on this issue, but he was saying that anyone who disagreed with him was somehow a bad person, because they didn’t appreciate the contributions of others.
I will use the roads as the example here. Certainly I didn’t build the roads, and I owe a debt of gratitude to the people who did. Using the public roads is a privilege and part of the compact I have with my society. But where Barack Obama was wrong was making the assumption that the roads could only have been built by government. The road system could just as easily be an entirely private enterprise, where we pay a company for the right to use their roads. There are plenty of examples where companies provide services that could be controlled by the government. This again goes to the heart of how our political system is to be used, but if we are to use the system to help us decide these issues, when the government itself is abusing the public trust discourse breaks down.
You may not trust a corporation to run the roads in a way that is in the best interest of the public, and I may agree to some extent. But on the other hand, I do not trust government to run the roads in the best interest of the public, and I can give case example after case example of cronyism, nepotism, and abuses of power to back my point. This is where the prison experiments come back up (see my previous musings on this issue). Can we trust the government to do what is best for us? I would argue that while we need government in order to have a just society and to settle disputes, the pendulum has swung entirely too far in the direction of too much government. The people writing the rules and trying to make the public judgments also have had their thumb on the scale, creating an unfair system for their own benefit. We have gone way too far down the road of self-interest overriding the public good. Have we gone too far? I don’t know. The election of Mr. Trump is one step in trying to get back to where we need to be. It is clear to me that Obama and the Clintons represent a low point in the history of our country of how much some people have personally benefitted at the expense of others.
I didn’t build the roads, and I clearly benefit from them, but the government also decides in what way I am allowed to use the roads. I have personally driven hundreds of thousands of miles in my life. In my time on the roads I am personally responsible for at least three accidents where I have been at fault as well as several others where I was not at fault. Thankfully no one was seriously hurt in any of these accidents. Each of these accidents was a learning experience for me, and have contributed towards making me a more careful and attentive driver. I will not bore you with the details of the accidents, but I can tell you that speed was not a factor in any of them, while inattention was the major factor in most.
My driving privileges are currently on probation. This is due to an accumulation of points due to speeding, most recently leading to a charge of ‘reckless driving’ due to excessive speed. I can tell you that while there have been plenty of instances of me not being as attentive a driver as I should have been, none of my speeding tickets has had anything to do with inattention or (in my opinion) recklessness. You may disagree with this, and if so, to some degree I will concede that you may be right. There are reasonable limits for speed that can be set on our roads, and for the most part I will accept that if I speed and I get caught, it is my own fault and I need to pay the consequences.
But, on the other hand, a large portion of our speeding and other driving laws are in place for purposes of taxation. Many local governments fund themselves based on tickets and fines paid, and some nasty obstacles such as red-light cameras have been put into place purely based on profit motive, and not out of a sense of ensuring public safety. The most fair system would be one in which the departments of roads and transportation and the police could come together to determine what the rules and fines should be, while their funding would be dependent on the degree of satisfaction of their citizens and not on the amount of revenue they can generate. This, unfortunately, is not the system we have. Once again we find the heavy hand of government itself weighing down the scale in favor of more bureaucracy, more rules, and less freedom.
In a fair system people who drive slow in the left lane would be ticketed for causing traffic disruption, and people talking on their cell phones and texting would be fined for inattentiveness (this last point is becoming a reality). “What, what, what?” the astute reader may ask, “Aren’t you being hypocritical for first saying that people should be allowed personal choice, and now saying that people shouldn’t be allowed to talk on their cell phones while driving?” What I am saying is that all of these issues exist on a spectrum, all of these issues are difficult, and all of these issues require the political process in order to be worked out among reasonable people. But misuse of the political process for personal profit is unacceptable and should be rooted out with all available energy. Our current government has become too enchanted with itself – and too powerful – and we need to take a step back towards personal freedom.
Fair minded people can agree that a large part of the disagreement in this country is due to an abuse of power. We can go down through the range of issues, and I will point out how misuse of governmental power has led to corruption and is the antithesis of what it means to be an American. Voting rights? I will be happy to concede that in the past there have been both overt and covert attempts to suppress or deny the vote of women and minorities if you are willing to concede that Democrats have been disingenuous in their claims that voter identification laws are somehow racist and misogynistic. It is insulting to women and minorities to say that they are not capable of obtaining identification in order to be able to vote, especially given that in states where voter identification laws have been passed, there has been a mechanism put into place to provide free identification for those who cannot pay to obtain an ID. If the system were fair it would be easy to identify who lives in what district and who is able to vote. Credit card companies and banks somehow are able to keep track of when someone has died or moved, because they have a motive to do so. Government, on the other hand, maintains millions of dead people and duplicate entries on their voter rolls. Why? For precisely the same reason – they have a motive to do so. Politicians can use these millions of improper voter entries for their own purposes. “But, but, but,” you say, “there have never been proven cases of large scale voter fraud.” I agree, but if you think that voter fraud hasn’t happened I have some beachfront property in Kansas that I would like to sell you.
It does not take a large number of votes to swing an election. Look at recent national elections for the Senate and even for the presidency that have come down to a few hundred votes. We are a country of laws, and having a law saying that you need to prove who you are in order to vote is not a such a burden on which honest people can not agree. This is another issue that is easy to demagogue, but then again playing on people’s fears is what it takes for the left to win in this country. I would be willing to go along with a system we have seen around the world where we dip our fingers in indelible ink when we vote, but if such a system were put into place I would also invest in any company who makes a soap that could wash away that ink.
When I went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to have my license reinstated and renewed recently I was asked whether I was registered to vote. I of course answered yes, but was reminded of the Motor Voter Act of 1993. The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) was an accomplishment of Bill Clinton and a triumph for Democrats. I actually think it is a fine law. But you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. If you want to register people to vote when getting a license, it is only fair to have to show a license to get to vote.