Magazine April 6, 2020, Issue

Bureaucracy’s Gentle Yoke

Outside a DMV branch in San Francisco, Calif., March 24, 2014 (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

When the Marquis de Custine visited Russia in 1839 he passed through customs at the fortress of Kronstadt, and wrote one of the first and most acidulous descriptions of modern bureaucracy in action. Each traveler was treated as a defendant, guilty until proven otherwise. One set of officials asked questions, others translated the answers from French (the language of diplomacy) to German (the language of Russian bureaucrats since Peter the Great) to Russian (the language of Russia). There was “a profusion of little superfluous precautions”; the men who administered them were “machines, burdened with souls.”

Cross an ocean and a century or two, and the city has the Department of Motor Vehicles. Trips to this capital of compulsion and inconvenience were so feared, beyond even jury duty, that they generated a legendary character, a female icon like Medusa of implacability and despair: the DMV Lady. Times have changed: The traffic flow and the mores of the DMV have undergone improvement, of which more later. But even with the most intelligent design, a necessary function that can be performed at only a few places creates choke points. And in a city of 8 million, they will choke.

My driver’s license was due for renewal. My face on the old one, I notice, had gray hair: snard- not snow-colored. That at least has changed for the better. Renewal is normally routine, but this year there is a wrinkle. If you want to present your driver’s license as ID for boarding a plane, you need a new category of license, passport strict. So the TSA and the DMV joined hands to make life merry.

To get the new super license you need to supply a slew of documents establishing your identity and your address. You can mail them in, to be returned with your license. Right, I’m going to pop my bona fides into the corner mailbox. Or you can present them, and yourself, at an office of the DMV.

Websites offered to explain everything you need to know about the process, but there were problems. The nearest office to where I live suffered a fire in its building. Closed until further notice. The list of documents that might pin me down was long and unclear. A passport was a big get, so was a Social Security card. I have the first, but my parents whimsically signed me up for Social Security when I was a child. I have no idea what became of that card. Bank statements and certain tax forms, it seemed, might serve instead. I did the best I could and picked an afternoon to set off.

The next-nearest DMV office was behind the central post office, a grand Beaux Arts building with milestones in the history of postal service inscribed on its entablature (Richelieu accomplished this, the Princes of Thurn und Taxis did that), climaxing in Herodotus’s sonorous incantation, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Architecture, like ambition, has coarsened over the years. My servants of the state worked up an escalator in a mid-century space halfway between a hotel mezzanine lobby and a betting parlor. There, however, the mood was serviceable, even welcoming. In the bad old days of the DMV one attached oneself to a long slow line that led to the DMV Lady. Now ladies and gentlemen hover about to guide the perplexed. If you had not already downloaded an application form and filled it out, there were tables with blanks where you could stand and do so. There was a touch-screen monitor, which gave you a number, as in an old-fashioned bakery. But first, the hovering helpers wanted to make sure you had brought the correct documents. I showed my stash; I hadn’t.

I would need that Social Security card after all, which meant another trip on another day. The closest office of this agency was downtown, in the grid walked by Hamilton and Burr. A website and a recorded message gave the necessary information. My passport and my (old) driver’s license would be ID enough. Unfortunately website and recording disagreed as to time. One said the office opened at 9:00 a.m., the other said seven. Since seven seemed improbably early, and I crave my late sleep, I showed up at nine. Another blah modern building, wedged into a tighter slot. Wrong again: Seven was the call to colors, and the room was already full. I asked the helper in this office (there was only one, but he was if possible even more genial than his uptown fellows), how long would I wait? One hour.

I had brought the paper and my wife. I left them to get coffee and a roll. If there is a coffee virus the city will stop. While we ate and waited, only one other person spoke in a tone to be overheard by all, a kind of record of urban decorum. The lines ran on time. I was at a counter speaking to the Social Security Lady on the dot of an hour. She looked Russian, handsome; there was a picture of the Lubavitcher rebbe on her carrel wall. The gorgeous mosaic. I submitted my information, and in ten days’ time I received a Social Security card.

Anxious folk, left and libertarian, say the modern state is about bullying and control, and the old DMV Lady epitomized that model. But isn’t it as often friendly? You want old-age payments, you want to board a plane without a terrorist across the aisle, let’s make life easy. The past, which it is tempting to romanticize, contained huge blocks of unfreedom: slavery, imprisonment for debt, no free online porn. At the same time, there was a westering looseness we have lost. As George Dangerfield wrote (The Era of Good Feelings), “the need to own . . . could be satisfied by the simple process of walking towards it.”

Wish me luck on my next DMV visit.

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Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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