Mr. Relative Comes Around


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.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
TwitterFacebookRedditEmailPrintFriendlyMore options

61 thoughts on “Mr. Relative Comes Around

  1. Most of the surplus laws aren’t enforced. Hell, a wise policeman doesn’t enforce half of the laws that are on the books, except in egregious circumstances…

    Every year, Jews put up Sukkahs. Every year, some shmuck decides to complain that they haven’t got a building permit (true). Every year, the policeman shows up and says “You guys have to take these down… the day after Sukkot.”

    This isn’t everywhere. I’ve seen attackdog policemen who enforce everything that they can get their grubby little hands on. I’ve been harassed by them, actually.

    But I do have to notice that it’s small towns and suburbs where the police enforce everything down to the last iota. Police in the cities generally have better things to do.


    • Pretty much the definition of a police state, isn’t it – whether you will be put through the legal wringer is a function of whether the police decide to go after you on all the laws you’re inevitably breaking (since there are too many for anyone to even count, much less attempt to follow).


      • df,
        mostly the police don’t know the laws either, though.
        I don’t think pittsburgh has a law about not letting unleashed elephants on the streets.
        but, we might.

        I know some towns do, and that’s because they broke something but good!

        I’ll stand strongly against “stop and frisk” and other assholery.

        But when I was being harassed by local cops, it was all legit, and in the law.
        the laws were designed so that cops could and ought to harass me.


  2. Well sure, strikes me as a fine liberal position to take too. LIberals support the body of laws so it behooves them to try and make sure said body is in the best shape (maximally succinct, minimally inefficient, maximally useful, minimally distortionary) it can be.


    • Seems at odds with the idea that we live in a democracy.
      As a liberal, I see a tension between “make the best laws”
      and “make people be happy about the laws”, given that
      people tend to overreact to tragedies.


  3. This ties into your essay on benevolent ignorance, I think.

    Most folks agree that “Something Should Be Done” when it comes to most any bad action. However, most of us would not be willing to put up with half of what would be required to actually put a dent in, oh, the bottom 2/3rds of the list.

    We like the idea of the government having this or that position on various things, but, like God, we don’t like the idea of instantiating it into law.


  4. 50 is too young but we do absolutely have a problem with people driving well the past the age when they are safe on the road in this country. How many times have people on this list read or heard news stories about accidents about senior citizens causing accidents because of diminished reflexes?

    My mom had to snatch her mom’s keys away when my grandmother developed Parkinson’s Disease.

    A few years ago there was a “heartwarming” story about a couple that had been married for decades who died in the hospital within minutes of each other holding hands. Everyone was passing around the story as an example of “true wuv”. It turns out that the couple died because the 90-something husband was driving a car with diminished capacity and got them into a bad accident. If he wasn’t driving, they would have lived!

    This isn’t the story I was thinking of but is similar:


    • In many other countries, this is less of a problem because public transportation is better. France, Japan, and Germany have particularly well-developed public transportation and rail networks. You can remove unsafe drivers from the road more easily because you don’t have to worry about them being prisoners in their own home without a car.


  5. You know what’s actually against the law? Impersonating a state official and mail fraud. I’m sure Mr. Acquaintance will be prosecuted with all the vigor that was reserved for say, James O’Keefe.


  6. Accepting that a government action that inconveniences you is nevertheless a sensible idea is the opposite of libertarian. As ND points out, there is a real problem with older drivers (not 50, but certainly 70 and 80), one that kills people. Starting recertification at an age when the vast majority will pass is actually a clever way to gain acceptance for the idea.


    • Yeah, I agree. I’m certainly not a full-on libertarian, but I’m fairly “liberaltarian” if that’s still a thing people are saying, and I definitely would support a statute like the one described in this post. Although I think the better way of implementing it would probably be to just have everyone have to take a test every time they renew their license regardless of age.


      • I’ll admit there is a real problem, if you will let data be our guide.

        If so, we should allow all 50-year-olds to drive without any additional tests, and we should absolutely prohibit everyone under 25.

        I write this not as a serious policy proposal, but to point out that these policies — all of them — have tradeoffs. Grim as it sounds, the optimal number of car crashes is almost certainly not zero.


      • That’s a different problem with the same symptoms. With older drivers, the issue is impairment of eyesight and reflexes. That’s straightforward to test for. With younger ones, it’s being an irresponsible, testosterone-fueled jackass. (At least last time I looked, the issue was with boys much more than girls.) That’s tricky if they’re smart enough to behave themselves during a test. The only way I see to address it is to consider a license for drivers that age to be provisional, and suspend it for any sort of recklessness.


      • Jason- You are exactly correct that there are trade offs in everything. Almost nobody really wants to talk about them. That would include the political groups both you and i belong to. I’ve been in a billion of these conversations where, just to be really picky, i or some other liberal type tries to point out various consequences to a libertarian policy idea. I don’t really remember those trade offs being discussed but i got a lot of generic gripes about government and Freedom talk.

        FWIW- My wifes grandmother, now deceased, was a horrendous driver for the last years of her life. My wife made me swear to never get in a car with her GM or allow her GM to drive anyplace. If fell to my wifes parents to finally take the keys. She couldn’t have passed a drivers test for the last 10 years of her life i bet.


      • If so, we should allow all 50-year-olds to drive without any additional tests, and we should absolutely prohibit everyone under 25.

        For the record, I’m not certain we should absolutely prohibit everyone under 25 from driving.

        But I’m totally 100% on board with making it a lot more difficult for them to get a license.

        I’m also 100% on board with making it a lot more difficult for everybody to keep their license, but that’s just me.


      • The only way I see to address it is to consider a license for drivers that age to be provisional, and suspend it for any sort of recklessness.

        My understanding is that the law in Germany is sort of like this, but maybe even goes farther. The first couple years you have your license, if you get in an accident – regardless of whose fault it is – the license is suspended.

        This theoretically encourages an abundance of caution on new drivers’ part, since some other jackass could screw it up for them.


      • Patrick,
        I’d strongly encourage folks to take a course under adverse conditions. Kids ought not to be on the road if they’ve never skidded, nor learned how to control a skid. Likewise, how to maneuver while hydroplaning… (and the limits thereof).


  7. Is it possible that Mr. Relative’s relatives didn’t necessarily accept the law but rather felt powerless to avoid Mr. Relative being legally obligated to comply and simply were trying to get him to take the path of least resistance?


      • I think this begs a bigger question:

        Is adherence to the law necessarily consent?

        And, perhaps larger still, if we decide that it is not consent, what should we do when our elected officials decide otherwise?


      • Adherence being taken as consent is a real issue. Think about the implications of it.

        State: Here’s a law.
        Citizen: I don’t like the law.
        State: Too bad. Follow it or go to jail.
        [Citizen follows law]
        State: See? You do like it.
        [Citizen breaks law]
        State: Go to jail.
        Citizen: I don’t think I should go to jail for breaking a bad law.
        State: Too bad.
        [Citizen is forcibly taken to prison]

        Eventually, any action short of feeling the country, suicide, or leading an armed rebellion amounts to consent of one part of the process or another.

        It’s good to be the state.


      • I think there are several strides between consent and agreement.
        Any law backed up by coercion (as a general rule) has serious issues
        on the consent side of things.

        Of course, not everyone knows which laws are backed up by coercion,
        and which are generally not…


      • There’s an interesting nuance when it came to the difference between Prohibition and The War On Drugs.

        In Prohibition, the police kicked down doors to speakeasies in the nice part of town too. When the Mayor was arrested, this was front page news and a legit scandal.

        In the War on Drugs, until recently, we only enforced the law in the crappy parts of town. We used harsher punishments for crack cocaine than powder cocaine. We have presidents who have been documented to have smoked it, broke all kinds of etiquette rules in smoking it, and who, when asked about maybe enforcing the law a little less today than it was enforced yesterday makes jokes about potheads.

        When you only enforce the laws against the bad people, you’ll find a *LOT* more support for the laws.


      • This is why I sometimes insist on zero tolerance, if only because it can do nicely to point out the absurdity of a law.

        “Oh, you support the War on Drugs? Cool. Then you’ll help me find the weed in your son’s backpack and will advise him to plead guilty and accept his 3 year sentence. Wait… what? You’re not on board with that? I thought you supported the War on Drugs? Well, which is it?”


  8. Some years ago, and on crossing the International Date Line, I instructed a number of persons to set all clocks ahead 24 hours. I expected a good laugh in a shared moment of levity. Instead, there was much scurrying around to find clocks. I learned then that for many the reflex to obey is stronger than the will to think.

    Not to get all carried away here, but what I enjoy about you, Mr. K. (as well as so many others here), is that you are always testing those reflexes – mine as well as your own.


  9. Call a thing a law, and the world bends over backwards to find a way to justify.

    I agree that “following orders” can lead to some perverse outcomes, but do you really think that’s what happened in this specific situation? In particular, that Mr. Relative’s family was primarily supportive of the law simply because they didn’t want him to be disagreeable. Do people really think like this: “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.” it’s like Lewis Carroll dialogue.

    It seems as likely that the family thought the law was fairly sensible but misguided – just as many comments here support a version of the law that applies to seniors. How much more misguided would the law need to be for Mr. Relative to call the DMV or his town council to file a complaint? How much before he wrote a letter to the local paper or agitated publicly against the law? Or is “not being crotchety” how Eichmann ended up in that glass cage?

    And to put my authoritarian hat on briefly (or keep it on, I guess) if Mr. Relative felt he had to study for a driving test and considered taking driver’s ed … maybe he should reconsider his aptitude.


  10. 1. This is a pretty damn funny joke.

    2. The OP’s reflection on how calling something a law enshrines it with legitimacy that reciprocates back into the culture is a powerful and important one.

    3. Fifty is probably too young to presume that a driver’s reflexes have diminished and safety is an issue. 65 might not be. My father, who is now over 65, reports sensing his own reflexes diminishing behind the wheel, although only a little bit. I WANT the state to make sure that drivers are safe and I’m willing to submit to testing as part of that. But then again I don’t call myself a libertarian.


    • I WANT the state to make sure that drivers are safe and I’m willing to submit to testing as part of that. But then again I don’t call myself a libertarian.

      Libertarians don’t care if you kill yourself behind the wheel, but they do care if you run a stop sign and kill somebody else.


      • Of course; no one wants that stop sign to get run.

        The question is whether the state is empowered to say “You can’t get behind the wheel” before that stop sign has been run in the first place — can we take away someone’s legal ability to drive before they get in to a collision that awful?

        AFAIC, making sure that drivers are physically able to drive is a legitimate use of state power.


      • Drive where?

        I’ve got 20 securely fenced acres and I build a race track on it. Would you have the state stop me from driving it when I’m 95, half-blind, and dead drunk?

        On a public highway with nom-suspecting innocent other drivers, would it be un-libertarian to have the state stop me on the basis of negative externalities? (Are libertarians opposed to drunk-driving laws?)


      • On a public highway …

        You statist! Roads should be owned and managed privately, with each road-company maintaining safety standards and licensing as they see fit. At the behest of the road-company, a representative of an independent safety certification group would come and assess how well their standards are being followed as well as general metrics of safety and efficiency of the road. If I wanted to drive to the store, I would consider the handful or so private roads offering their services from my house and rationally evaluate their safety restrictions as well as their safety record/certification (if available). I would then research the corresponding road-company safety certification group and rationally evaluate their record of evaluating road-companies (and so on for the certification of the certification group, etc.). Eventually, I would optimally weight the road-company safety claims, the independently verified veracity of such claims, and my own risk/cost tolerance to select an equitable private road. Finally, I would *voluntarily* apply for any driver’s license required to travel.

        And I assure you, this driver’s license would not be foisted on me by a bloated and redundant government bureaucracy.


      • My example was mostly a joke, but is the privatization of roads as far out of the libertarian mainstream as Cadillac redistribution is for liberals? Didn’t we just have the anti-rent-seeking discussion where privatization + ratings-agencies all the way down was a commonly-held libertarian solution to most of the liberal concerns?


      • I’d say this is the mainstream libertarian position.

        By the way, I have property on a private road. Probably most readers here who lives in a covenanted subdivision do, too, or at least a good proportion of them. And in fact the streets through Rockefeller Center in NY are technically private, so I’ve heard (and closed one day a year, to prevent losing private ownership through creation of a public easement). But privatizing all roads is pretty much limited to the Mises folks, who are genereally the farther end of libertarianism.


      • (Are libertarians opposed to drunk-driving laws?)

        I recall comments posted on this very website that opposed drunk-driving laws on libertarian grounds: that the state has no business either setting arbitrary blood alcohol levels or demanding to know a driver’s current BAC. If someonee causes damages or breaks traffic laws, prosecute him for that.

        But I doubt that’s common among people who consider themselves libertarians.


      • Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, as linked by James:

        Free market capitalism isn’t just about certain rules, it cannot work without a depth of human capital, a shared belief in “playing fair” and otherwise adhering to certain unwritten mores.

        In other words, we should have nationalized the banks in 2009.


      • I recall comments posted on this very website that opposed drunk-driving laws on libertarian grounds: …

        They might have been serious.

        They might also have been tentative, probing the frontiers of the libertarian/regulatory state boundary. A large part of the libertarian project is to question received wisdom on the necessity of the regulatory state.

        And because some people can’t deal well with questioning received wisdom, they might also have just been having fun making liberals’ heads explode.


      • I’ve got 20 securely fenced acres and I build a race track on it. Would you have the state stop me from driving it when I’m 95, half-blind, and dead drunk?

        That depends.

        When you roll the car and get your dumb ass hauled to the emergency room and rack up 10k worth of medical bills and your insurance company rightly won’t pay and that first 10k is only the start of the total cost, are we all 100% behind *both* (a) the hospital having unfettered ability to be a’ comin’ after those 20 acres to pay the 10k, booting your window out onto the street, and (b) letting you die?


  11. 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.

    And this is as it should be. Without this tendency, we would be back in the state of nature where life is nasty brutish and short


    • I think there’s a pretty big area between the tendency Jason describes and the “state of nature.” What’s more, if the “state of nature” is one extreme, the other, on the end of blind adherence to authority, can be pretty nasty and brutish, with short lives, as well.


      • My observation here – and Milgram’s, which I’m basically ripping off – sit badly with state of nature theory: It suggests that, out of the state of nature, we readily construct authorities to follow. If there are no gods, we grab a chunk of wood and start carving idols. It’s just what we do.

        The question then becomes: Given that authority structures self-organize, complete with obedient followers, how do we make certain that they are worth the respect we will (all but inevitably) give?


      • Jason, I agree 100%. That’s part of why I kept putting “state of nature” in scare quotes. I was going to note that for us, the “state of nature” is groups of people who instinctively follow familial or tribal rules, whether they’re “written” or “unwritten” (neither of which do I mean literally).

        This, as you suggest, makes the problem of legitimacy the problem of social structures and institutions. And blind adherence to authority, however intuitive it may be, or to whatever extent it is our default stance towards authority, is the best way to ignore the problem of legitimacy altogether.


      • Jason,
        Some people worship laws. Maybe 25% of people — they generally find “conservative religions” to enroll in. (perhaps I am being a provincial American…)

        Most people aren’t like that.


      • My point I think was that as often as our tendency to create authorities leads us into folly, without that tendency I think we would be completely screwed. Making sure that tendency itself doesn’t screw us over is difficult. Can we actually bootstrap our way to a more just society? Conceptually, it seems like a tall order, but we did manage to get rid of slavery and most forms of institutional racism and sexism. The reason I think we can do that is that we are not wholly blind rule followers. And authorities are not permanent. Supposing in those times where authority breaks down, we are more likely to maintain the liberal aspects of our social rules because it just is to a sufficient degree compatible with everyone’s personal values whatever our values turn out to be. Societies will over time perform a biased random walk towards a more liberal order.


      • Jason,
        I don’t think “state of nature” comes with obedient followers. People cheat, they backbite, they scheme. Oh, sure, you bow to the alpha male… when he’s around. But most men boink the harem when they can get away with it (which is naturally done in shadows and quiet corners, generally during a feast of some sort).


Comments are closed.