An acquaintance of mine, a mainstream liberal who is not at all a public figure, recently allowed me to share this story. I’m omitting the identifying details, so we’ll call him Mr. Acquaintance.
One of Mr. Acquaintance’s relatives — Mr. Relative — was preparing to celebrate his fiftieth birthday. And on that day, Mr. Relative received in the mail a notice on official letterhead. It read more or less as follows:
Dear Mr. Relative:
Congratulations on your fiftieth birthday. We at the Department of Motor Vehicles wish you many more to come.
Pursuant to state law, we’d also like to remind you to schedule your motor vehicle license re-certification exam. This exam must be scheduled for no later than sixty days after your fiftieth birthday. Re-certification is part of our state’s Safe Senior Drivers Initiative and is being done for your own protection.
We ask that you carefully study for the written portion of the exam. You may also wish to consider brushing up on your skills for the road test, which must be passed following your fiftieth birthday and every five years thereafter. Failure to comply will automatically invalidate your license.
Wishing you all the best,
The Friendly People at the Department of Motor Vehicles
“Those goddamn bureaucrats,” Mr. Relative began. “What the hell are they thinking? I can drive just fine, I’m not a senior citizen, and I’m NOT wasting half a day at the DMV. Let them take my license away. I don’t give a damn.”
As Mr. Acquaintance later confided to me: “He sounded… well… pretty libertarian, for a while there.”
Of course a few of Mr. Relative’s relatives happened to overhear his righteous little tirade. They were both caring and dutiful, and so they began to reason with him. They’d never heard of such a law either, but it simply wouldn’t do to allow Mr. Relative to go all crotchety — at fifty years of age, no less. Better to comply than to set a bad habit, one that would only deepen with age.
“Older people can sometimes lose their reflexes,” said Mrs. Niece. “And their coordination. I mean, maybe you haven’t, but they do need to check.”
“It’s nothing personal,” said Mr. Uncle. “It’s like paying your taxes.”
“Just do it, get it over with, and you won’t have to worry about it,” said Miss Daughter.
Gradually, Mr. Relative came around. He began to see the logic of the law, which — after all — only had his best interests at heart. When he got back to work, he cleared an afternoon from his busy schedule. He began to study. I infer that he drew the line at actually re-taking preparatory driver’s ed classes, which might have entailed rubbing elbows with folks less than a third his age. But the law functioned all the same as a powerful teacher, and Mr. Relative began gravely to prepare for his civic duty.
There was just one problem: The letter was a fake. A joke. It had come from Mr. Acquaintance, who had lately happened upon a supply of official letterhead. Evidently he’d been feeling puckish.
As a result, Mr. Acquaintance — who is, I repeat with regret, not even a libertarian — played one of the best damn libertarian pranks I’ve ever heard tell of. At first, the prank aimed at Mr. Relative, and at his age. But while it hit Mr. Relative, it also hit Mr. Relative’s relatives, and it hit them right in their gullibility.
No one was hurt; only a few were inconvenienced, and that only slightly. In this it compares favorably to the Milgram Experiment, which showed more or less the same thing, only with a lot more melodrama. And decades of survivor guilt.
All the participants could learn something, I think, if they chose: For many of us, whatever goes under the name of law carries a good deal of extra moral authority. Whether it deserves to or not. Call a thing a law, and the world bends over backwards to find a way to justify.
Can we suppose that the legislators don’t know this? They must.
Now what would happen if we all knew it, and if we looked at every law not as the product of Democracy, or the product of Our Great Republic, but as if it had come from the puckish hand of Mr. Acquaintance?
Some of his products must deserve respect, of course. But they do have to earn it first. And perhaps re-earn it, as times and situations change. Most likely there is a vast reserve of surplus law in our society, sustained, obeyed, and enforced with physical compulsion, and the whole mess carries on not because of any inherent justice, but from a particular moral blindness of humans.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.