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A Day at the DMV, Or Why Conservatives Hate Government

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 [1].

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 [2]—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 [3]: “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 [4].

77 Comments (Open | Close)

77 Comments To "A Day at the DMV, Or Why Conservatives Hate Government"

#1 Comment By grumpy realist On January 10, 2018 @ 5:43 pm

P.S. oh, and simply “privatizing” the services doesn’t mean they’ll be done any better. The United States Patent Office has outsourced some of the busy work and lemmee tell you, we’re constantly running across errors in what has been done.

#2 Comment By Ksw On January 10, 2018 @ 5:59 pm

In Maryland, I have been able to reregister my car painlessly over the internet for at least the past ten years. And it took me less than an hour to get a new drivers licence at the local DMV a couple of years ago.

Maybe after Virginia turns completely blue you too can have a government that works 🙂

#3 Comment By LT On January 10, 2018 @ 6:13 pm

Gee, I don’t know. Maybe it would be more “efficient” to enable a few people to be able to profit from the issue of drivers’ licenses.
What could be more “efficient” than someone’s wage being dependent on how many papers they process for approval and/or rejection? Surely, it’s better that we can squeeze a couple more middle-man, trillionaires with good connections out of the alleged “free-market” (hold laughter…and applause) no matter what it might do to the cost of issuing licenses.

At any rate, the DMV does a great job considering they are dealing with a customer base in a hurry to go nowhere they haven’t gone before, flinch at the thought of talking to someone with a different skin color or different hairstyle, thinks everyone is looking at them (perpetual adolescence), and is affronted that the staff doesn’t realize how much more important they are than everyone else in line (judging, of course, from their clothes).

As for this:
“If you ever wonder why single-payer health care is a non-starter in America, the DMV is your answer.”

And…this entire article was written without mentioning the words AAA.

So yes, Virginia, you can have single payer health care system and a private system (not great care subsidized by low wage earners of your corporations employment pool, but great care that you should gladly spend greater amounts for exclusive privilege).

So if you are just a an “embarrassed, would-be, millionaire that hasn’t lived up to his/her potential” you may just have to suck it up.

#4 Comment By sara On January 10, 2018 @ 7:01 pm

“John says: January 10, 2018 at 4:04 pm
Iron law of commenting on TAC. You must always take the opposite position of the writer no matter what.”

No, it is just that most people have noticed that things have changed in the last 20+ years. DMV jokes were popular in the 1980s and 90s because the waits were terrible. We have the internet now.

#5 Comment By Kenneth Almquist On January 10, 2018 @ 7:08 pm

This article doesn’t do a very good job of explaining why conservatives hate government. We are told that the conservative thinks:

Are the clerks this incompetent?

An odd question given that the article has no examples of incompetent clerks.

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”?

Addison Del Mastro may be too young to know this, but the documentation requirements for obtaining a driver’s license were set by the federal government in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, not any “overpaid bureaucrat.” And where is the evidence that this hypothetical bureaucrat is overpaid?

Let me back up and say that I think a blanket statement that conservatives hate government is wrong. It’s entirely conservative to find value in existing institutions. But for the subset of conservatives Del Mastro is describing, it seems to me that lived experience is pretty much irrelevant. It seems more like living in a fog induced by listening to too much Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.

If the Virginia legislature wanted to reduce the waiting times at the DMV, they could do it by allocating money to hire more clerks. It’s not hard to come up with a reason why they don’t. The Virginia state legislature is controlled by Republicans, and Republicans have been railing against taxing and spending for years. Yet somehow, the type of conservative described by Del Mastro never makes the connection between voting for legislators who rail aginst taxing and spending, and living in a state where the state legislature is adverse to taxing and spending.

The question is why. Del Mastro attributes this to individual psychology, but I don’t think that is sufficient. People on all points of the political spectrum can be convinced of all sorts of nonsense. The question is, who has in interest in convincing people to hate government? And that’s the 1%, or more precisely, the portion of the 1% that wants to advance the interests of the wealthy at the expense of everybody else.

#6 Comment By WIck Allison On January 10, 2018 @ 7:26 pm

As governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels — a Republican —
reduced waiting times at state DMV offices to an average of 8.5 minutes. It can be done. But it takes someone who cares about governing and not just posturing and who is willing to spend the money to make government more efficient.

#7 Comment By Jesse On January 10, 2018 @ 7:39 pm

I see this author has never had a billing error with their cable or phone bill lately. Personally, I’ve had far more issues with the UPS than the Postal Service, but I recognize that’s luck of the draw, not proof UPS is terrible and should be nationalized.

Large organizations have lots of bureaucracy. That’s life.

#8 Comment By Paul Mouritsen On January 10, 2018 @ 7:55 pm

Nevada’s DMV has improved dramatically. A receptionist checks your documents at the front desk to make sure they are in order. She gives you a number and then sends you a text about 15 minutes before your turn comes up, so you can leave and run errands while waiting.

#9 Comment By Nelson On January 10, 2018 @ 8:13 pm

The government can be efficient or not, the private sector can be efficient or not – particularly if they don’t have competition. The worst of both worlds is private companies under exclusive contract to provide government services. You get the inefficiencies of a monopoly combined with the increased costs of lobbying and kickbacks.

#10 Comment By Olivier On January 10, 2018 @ 8:22 pm

So much bloviation and so little common sense. Who, possessed of the thinking powers God gave to squirrels, does his shopping on the 24th of December or goes to the DMV on a Saturday? How does this fellow go through life?

#11 Comment By TDB On January 10, 2018 @ 10:13 pm

This article has been bothering me all day but I return to find that Mr. Alquist has said almost exactly what I’ve been thinking.

My own DMV has few lines and swift service; much can be done online with the exception of photos. But the RMV in my neighboring state nearly closed the local office and would have forced people to drive at least an hour to get service. It took a concerted fight by our local and state officials to prevent that from happening. Less access means longer waits and lines and a lunchtime errand becomes a half-day drudge.

This article from early 2017 (doubt if much has changed since) sums up the state of the Virginia DMV.

“The DMV commissioner, Richard Holcomb, says because the agency has been required to take on more demands, otherwise known as unfunded mandates, the money has to come from somewhere. If it can’t raise fees, the only places left to cut would be jobs or offices.”


#12 Comment By Tyro On January 10, 2018 @ 10:33 pm

what does all this really say about federalism and liberty?

The DMV is local and state government, not federal. It should be perhaps THE most responsive agency in America, assuming conservatives are right that devolution of the federal government to the states is the solution.

#13 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 11, 2018 @ 1:17 am

“But it takes someone who cares about governing and not just posturing and who is willing to spend the money to make government more efficient.”

Ah, the liberal siren . . . want efficiency spend more money. The point of innovation to efficiency is to save money. Spending more is no guarantee of improved efficiency unless money can be directly linked to problem and solution —

I doubt that either is true in the case of government services. efficiency suggests avoiding needless repetition, something as simple getting rid of constantly registering your vehicle to the the same address owned by the person — you could wild several million needless process in a single swipe.

Not registering or licensing noncitizens

#14 Comment By Bob Rawlings On January 11, 2018 @ 6:22 am

Here in Pennsylvania you get a ticket when you walk into the DMV for your estimated wait time. I went on a Saturday afternoon (which I’d assume was one of the busiest times of the week) and got a wait time of 20 minutes. My number was called at exactly 17 minutes and I was out the door 3 minutes later. The entire process was smooth and streamlined, and much more efficient than when I first started going to the DMV 25 years ago. I can’t really complain about any of it.

#15 Comment By Youknowho On January 11, 2018 @ 7:50 am

I am not sure what the author is complaining about, the slowness of the process, or being made to rub shoulders with “the great unwashed”, because they too need to register their vehicles (surprise! surprise!)

I take that he never goes grocery shopping, because patiently standing in line (not even being given seats) while others are being attended, and having to wait until THEIR issues are resolved is a normal occurrence every day of the week at supermarkets. Surely, it can be more cumbeersome, but as he says, it happens only once a year, and arrangements can be made not to be otherwise occupied (bring a book), and the State COULD hire more clerks – but then you’d have to raise taxes.

By the way, I live in Pennsylvania, and the annual renewal is done by mail.

#16 Comment By Michael Powe On January 11, 2018 @ 7:52 am

Wherein it is demonstrated the dangers of the inductive method, reasoning from a single experience to describe all experience.

That the author believes all employees of DMV are lazy and/or indifferent to doing good work reveals more about privileged class arrogance than about the reality of a DMV office.

The conservative mind, with its love of liberty… The author provides comic relief. Thanks for that. In truth, many places like the DMV provide miserable experiences because that’s what “liberty loving” conservatives want them to be, and they’ve been in the political positions to force their desires on the rest of us. They engineer failure, usually through budgetary finagling, and then pretend that the failure is in the gov’t itself. They act this way because their ideology does not allow for efficient gov’t services, and they are incapable of adjusting their world view to the reality of the world.

When “liberty loving” conservatives in the US Congress were stymied by the reality that the USPS was a fiscally sound operation, they changed the reality by saddling it with legislatively mandated budgetary requirements that would drive it into the red – at least on paper.

While on a consulting engagement in Chicago in 2015, I renewed my Connecticut DL via the web, because I was not able to go to DMV in person. However, the newly-issued document arrived with a notation stamped on it in red letters: “Not valid for Federal identification.” Yes, “liberty loving” conservatives in Congress mandated that DL renewals must be made in person if you want to use the document for activities like traveling via airlines. Thanks for that.

#17 Comment By Argon On January 11, 2018 @ 8:09 am

“If you ever wonder why single-payer health care is a non-starter in America, the DMV is your answer.”

You must not have been stuck with Aetna as your Healthcare insurer… Want to talk about red tape and hours wasted on the phone to ensure your insurer pays for something they clearly cover?

In contrast, at my MA DMV, I was out the door within 15 minutes for a car registration. Renewals are handled online. I wish my health insurance worked that smoothly.

#18 Comment By Jon Frazier On January 11, 2018 @ 8:51 am

Re: I doubt that either is true in the case of government services. efficiency suggests avoiding needless repetition, something as simple getting rid of constantly registering your vehicle to the the same address owned by the person — you could wild several million needless process in a single swipe.

The annual or biennial registration business is really just a backdoor property tax. Though of course that can and should be done online and by mail, and as other posters have noted this is the case in most states. Anyone know if Virginia does not offer that option? If they are that far behind the curve, then, yes, they really do need to spend some money to create the sort of online infrastructure to allow that.

#19 Comment By connecticut farmer On January 11, 2018 @ 8:58 am

“If you ever wonder why single-payer health care is a non-starter in America, the DMV is your answer.”

Not sure that I buy the analogy as it appears to be an apples-to-oranges comparison. As to a single-payer system–even if it’s simply Medicare for All– it probably won’t work but I am seeing more and more people becoming convinced that it will be a panacea.

#20 Comment By Jon Frazier On January 11, 2018 @ 9:02 am

Hi mrscracker,

While visiting relatives in Arizona I needed to get some Sudafed since I was having a sinus attack from the change in climate. This was in a small town, not a touristy area. The clerk at Walgreens was utterly flummoxed at being given an out of state ID and I almost had to get one my cousins to buy the stuff for me. It really does seem that Sudafed is harder to buy than opioids.

#21 Comment By mrscracker On January 11, 2018 @ 10:57 am

TR says:

“You’ll be happy to know that because of the security checks on buying certain decongestants, production of Meth has largely shifted to Mexico. Look at it this way, your shame was Mexico’s gain.”
You know come to think of it, I have noticed fewer meth lab busts in the news recently. Thanks for pointing that out.

#22 Comment By mrscracker On January 11, 2018 @ 11:15 am

Jon Frazier ,
I sure hope you’re all recovered from that cold now.
I know it’s a good thing overall for pharmacy employees to be careful about ID’s. It’s just aggravating when folks doing the wrong thing end up making life harder for the rest of us.

#23 Comment By PrairieDog On January 11, 2018 @ 11:51 am

Vehicle and driver regulations would be better handled by central government? Really?

Driver’s licenses were originally just a certificate that the holder was minimally competent at operating a motor vehicle, had passed the test. In the years since, driver’s licenses have become, in effect, internal passports as well as a “Christmas tree” for other, non-driver, non-vehicle regulations. This would only get worse if controlled by the national government.

Like it or not, inefficiemcy and ineffectiveness,are often the only thing making government tolerable.

#24 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 11, 2018 @ 4:48 pm

“”The annual or biennial registration business is really just a backdoor property tax.”

No argument from me.

#25 Comment By Louis Lucky On January 13, 2018 @ 6:08 pm

I’ve been paying for the privilege of driving in Colorado for more than 70 years, and I believe my first license was the only one that didn’t require a half-day of my time. And that one required a driving test. We’ve spent many millions of dollars with 3 or 4 companies the last 20-30 years for an IT system that only recently began to be sort of reliable.

This afternoon, I went online to renew my license. The process went smoothly. At checkout, I was informed it’s much more expensive to renew online than it is to pay a couple of DMV staff at a brick and mortar office, so they need another $30 for an agency fee. Now Colorado is sort of a blueish/purple state these days, with the State government overseen by a number of Californistan immigrants.

As to the several disparaging comments about people performing government-required duties on Saturdays, it’s quite apparent that many of you on the coasts have no functional knowledge of much of the U.S. There are a large number of folks who actually work 40 to 60 hours a week, and that time is quite often the same hours State offices are open. That leaves Saturday as a possible day for the really important things.

#26 Comment By JonF On January 15, 2018 @ 6:27 pm

Re: here are a large number of folks who actually work 40 to 60 hours a week, and that time is quite often the same hours State offices are open.

Believe it or not many of us on the coast have jobs like that too– I do. But when I needed to go to the MVA I let my employer know ahead of time I might be a bit late and got to the place early enough I was in and out and on my way to work maybe twenty minutes late. I’ve done the same (and been a bit later) for early doctor appointments, and to vote on election day. I’m pretty sure heartlanders could do this too, in fact I know they could since I did as much when I lived in Michigan and Ohio too.

#27 Comment By Kristine On January 17, 2018 @ 2:04 pm

I live in Colorado and have seen state and county Motor Vehicle Divisions cut more and more from their budget and more and more services are either digitized or concentrated at a handful of service centers. This is what smaller government looks like in the day to day lives of many people. I guess I don’t understand why someone who wants this sort of shrinking government scenario would complain about a trip to the DMV when slashed budgets and reduced workforce is the logical outcome of getting the government out of your life. I recnetly had to drive 10 miles to get to a DMV office so I could replace my license and registration after my wallet was stolen a couple of months ago. It didn’t take half a day, but it did take three hours with drive time. When I first moved here, I could go to a service center that was 1 mile away and it was busy but convenient. Now, I drive 10 miles (IN A CITY) to get to a facility. I cursed anti-government zealots the entire way out there and the whole way back. This is what you folks wanted. What’s the problem?