I spent last Saturday at the DMV. No, not quite the whole day, but not far off. My nearest location is in the bottom floor of the Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax, Virginia, in what must have once been a store before the era of dying and oddly repurposed malls.
Curiously, the demographic inside the DMV is not exactly the one that shops at Fair Oaks, or that someone of my socio-economic level is likely to see very much of. One wonders where all these poor immigrants and large families actually live day to day. They are more or less invisible to people like me, which is probably not ideal. It should not take something uncommon like a DMV visit, or something surreptitious like a peek into a laundromat window, to know what one’s society really looks like.
The second thing you notice is the slow pace of the lines, and their length (or perhaps you notice that first, but I am more of a crowd-watcher). On this count and many others, the infamous Post Office is merely the little league to the DMV’s majors. The line stretches out the door, so that you aren’t even inside the office until you’ve been waiting 20 or 30 minutes. (And that’s if you’re lucky—the man behind me mentioned that once, he had waited three hours just to get in the door.) Then you get a ticket and wait for a few more hours. Sometimes the check-in clerk will catch deficiencies in your documents and send you home. This happened to me twice, because the seemingly clear instructions on the website left out several required documents. If you’re less lucky, it is only once your ticket is called that you learn your documents are missing a jot or tittle that necessitates leaving, correcting them, and going through the whole process again.
The conservative mind, with its love of liberty and occasional bent towards conspiracy, finds it hard to imagine that this is not somehow intentional. Think of what a productivity sink all these lost hours represent to our economy, or how many families won’t have time to cook dinner when they get home. Are the clerks this incompetent? Or does some faceless, overpaid bureaucrat enjoy depriving families of their leisure time and forcing them to gather every official document ever devised in order to exercise their “driving privilege”? And what exactly is the legal pedigree of the idea that one does not have a right to drive in a nation composed chiefly of endless miles of suburbia?
Of course, suburbia has plenty of its own problems. If the purpose of the awful DMV experience is to gently discourage car ownership—a laudable goal in a region cluttered with aging sprawl and boasting some of the worst traffic jams in the nation—it doesn’t work. Force people to re-register their cars every month, and it might (not that I’m asking for it). But every year or two, it merely makes for a humiliating inconvenience, all the more humiliating because you’re not willing to forego a car in order to avoid it.
Is there any reason why, in the age of the iPhone X and Amazon Dash, we still register our automobiles and renew our driver’s licenses the way college students queued for dorms in 1960? Security, perhaps, but are the reams of bank statements, addressed letters, and decades-old SSN cards really verified by the harried worker behind the counter? They’d like us to think so. Nonetheless, a friend of mine once fooled the police with an Internet-sourced fake ID. They even sent a ticket to his non-existent address. Is the DMV more scrupulous than the boys in blue?
Perhaps—the conservative mind wonders—its purpose is really to make you feel small, a helpless subject of the fickle state, locked in a dismal office with standing room only, like a Soviet peasant in line for cabbage and mustard.
President Obama marketed the “public option” back during the health care reform debate by essentially arguing that it would be too bad to outcompete private insurance: “If you think about it,” he said, “UPS and FedEx are doing just fine, right? It’s the Post Office that’s always having problems.”
He was probably right: you can’t argue both that the government is incompetent and that it will outcompete private companies. If only there were a private option, then, to the DMV’s public option. If you ever wonder why single-payer health care is a non-starter in America, the DMV is your answer.
On the other hand, if there is any aspect of our daily lives in which greater federal control might bring improvement, it is vehicle and driver licensing. In most areas of consequence or controversy—from gay marriage to marijuana to drunk driving and speed limits—federalism has long since succumbed to strings-attached federal money or judicial activism. But something as mundane as driving to the supermarket? That remains the province of the 50 states, with 50 different sets of rules, required documents, and state motor vehicle agencies. A strict libertarian might consider such inefficiency to be the cost of freedom—but federalism in this instance produces plenty of cost and almost no freedom.
Ultimately, however, one’s feelings about this grim ritual of the suburban way of life are probably rooted in individual psychology. A great deal of our politics, I suspect, develops in this way: we first generalize our experiences, and then turn them into ideologies. This goes for doomsday preppers in Idaho and SJWs at Oberlin alike, whose politics more or less follow their psychological peculiarities. Some people accept that something like a day at the DMV is necessary, and grin and bear it. Others chafe at it and end up reading shades of Stalinism into something merely mundane and boring.
Neither is quite right: there are virtues in grinning and bearing, and there are virtues in asking questions. The trouble is that some things can be changed and some cannot, and it isn’t always easy to tell which are which. Luckily, we only have to think about this once every year or two.
Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor for The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro.