i want my DMV

Uncle thinks there ought to be a law. Amanda and I mirrored their conversation almost exactly last week, when we nearly died in gruesome fashion of some sort at the hands of a granny behind the wheel of a buick. I proposed, half-jokingly, that once you reach a certain age, the re-testing frequency should increase, but that there should be some discrimination based on some criteria that would not require the same verification of a fit and healthy 65-year old that it did of an ailing granny of the same age with osteoporosis and near-legal-blindness – after all, the point is to weed out people incapable of driving, not just old people.

Then I continued to consider all the ways in that is utterly unthinkable and dangerous, given the size of the bureaucracy we have already that is just barely keeping up.

The DMV is a fascinating nexus of libertarian ideas – encompassing both their limits as well as their relevance. The notion that there are limits to personal freedom lies in the existence of the DMV at all – that we as a society felt compelled at some point to collectively organize to license drivers to protect people from wayward Buicks. Conversely, the DMV has increasingly become a surrogate for Big Brother: a clearinghouse for any and all Government-granted privileges, of which actually driving is merely one. Wired had a good article about this that talks about this:

Most businesses and state agencies have a problem with outstanding debt. Bounced checks, IOUs, stolen credit cards - it all adds up. Some organizations write off anywhere from 5 to 20 percent of their debts as “uncollectable.”

Most agencies, that is, except for the DMV. “We don’t have debt,” says Lewis, who oversees all of the Massachusetts Registry’s computer and information systems. Last year, the Massachusetts Registry collected more than US$660 million in fees and fines; less than $600,000 came back as bounced checks - a whopping 0.1 percent. “How can you afford to stiff us?” Lewis asks rhetorically. “Whatever it is you have, we’ll take it. We’ll pull your driver’s license. We’ll take your title. We just don’t have bad debt.” Lewis pauses a moment to consider his words, then shrugs, his point made: At the Massachusetts Registry, “we walk a very fine line with incredible power over people.”

One can only imagine how much worse it’s gotten since 1994. In our post-9/11 any-police-state-measure-goes environment, using government authority to extort money seems quaint and passe, given the current abuses we’re facing.

Proponents of the DMV’s authority in this area, as well as advocates for a “Real ID” national identification program, are quick to scoff at any suggestion that forms of government-sponsored identification are anything less than crucial. The justification offered is usually along the lines of security. But Bruce Schneier in the past has shot down the notion that identification has anything to do with real security.

So the question is this: Is there a way to extricate the function of simply testing for driving ability and licensing drivers from its raw potential for authoritarian abuse? If so, would it allow for more flexibility and creativity in how this is accomplished so that the risk of being killed by blue-haired grannies in weaving Caddies is lessened? I’d be interested in hearing some libertarian or mutualist takes on this situation. It’s one that boils down to a fundamental question of where libertarian ideas intersects with some pragmatic realities. Who decides on the dividing line between personal freedom and social responsibility, and how do we prevent this privilege from being a lever used to extort and aggregate power?

Yes, I realize that these questions are basically at the root of centuries/millenia worth of sociopolitical discourse. Nonetheless I expect an answer by the time I get back from my errands.