"It [government] covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd." ~ Alexis de Tocqueville
Kneeling in the Grass
I wear my green khaki pants rarely. But by coincidence or good fortune, I picked them out Tuesday evening, so that when two cops ordered me out of my car at gunpoint the next morning, I wasn't staining the knees of my pants when I complied and knelt in the wet grass of the median strip. Irritation was my overriding feeling -- irritation rapidly growing into fatalistic disgust.
Handcuffed, I watched cops from two more patrol cars go through my car interior and trunk, as passing motorist were given live entertainment on their way to work. Fortunately, I had no 'legislated-against' objects in the car. Certainly, the traffic pattern was delayed since there was plenty of rubbernecking, and we were taking up two of the busy road's four lanes. If five hundred people were delayed five extra minutes, 2,500 work minutes were lost to the economy, along with the systemic entropy that puffed out of the hundreds of idling exhaust pipes.
'Do you know what is happening here?' the original cop asked me.
'You all are screwing up?' was my automatic response, absent any wise deliberation.
'I'm screwing up? My computer told me this car was reported stolen!'
'This car was stolen two years ago (in Washington , D.C. ),' I answered. 'It was found and returned after being adjudicated through the system.'
'I don't know who you are, so until we check you out, my job is to treat you like a (dangerous felon ' paraphrased). Do you have any ID?' He pulled my wallet out of my pocket. 'If your story checks out, we'll let you go.' He then put me in his car.
To be accurate, the car was stolen in Washington , D.C. 20 months ago and recovered by DC police from two juvenile offenders about a month later. It went to the DC impound lot and then to the insurance company. The juveniles went to court. Apparently, it is still listed on hot sheets 18 months after the fact in at least one of DC's neighboring jurisdictions ( Maryland ). To me, this is clear incentive to leave nothing to chance and get new government tags. Irritation gave me unnatural calm in this instance, and I did nothing to get a cap busted in the back of my head. 'I can't get out of the car ' I'm belted in,' I replied when ordered out of the car. I waited until he told me to use one raised hand to release my belt and get out of the car. In a sad case that happened nearby two years ago, an innocent man was shot in the face by a trigger-happy FBI guy when he tried to undo his seatbelt to comply with an order to get out of his car. Nothing ever happened to that FBI guy ' his superiors explained that he was doing his job. I'm sure nothing would have happened to my guys, too, if they'd left me facedown on my blood-spattered steering wheel.
Of course, my story checked out, and I was at work only 20 minutes later than usual. And I didn't have noticeable grass stains on my paints.
Libertarianism prepared me for the moment. My fatalism was the product of reading countless stories of fouled up bureaucratic lists and edicts that destroy people's lives. Study of Austrian economics has revealed to me the systemic inefficiency of barely accountable state-run protection monopolies. In my case, I was thankful that I'd already dropped my six-year old son off at school five minutes earlier, and I was confident then that I would likely be freed that day. At the same time, I envisioned people trapped on the no-fly list and their Patriot Act cousin lists and felt empathy for what could happen to any of us. Our individual vulnerability was also refreshed for me. Like a fly in amber, I was caught. Whatever my faith or philosophy, my immediate future choices were obey or get shot.
The whole episode left me feeling very sad. The apostle Paul told Christians in Romans 13 to obey just authority. That's entirely reasonable and can even be consistent with anarchy. If I lived in a barrio with a powerful drug dealer who decreed no more violent crimes were to happen on his turf (see the 4-star fact based movie 'City of God'), he is playing the necessary role of a just authority. But legal force that is applied in increasingly arbitrary or incompetent fashion is simply depressing, even if it's the most powerful nation-state government in the world. When Martha Stewart can be penned up in a cage absent an actual crime, there's no stigma in being arrested by the cops.
'We were doing our job. Your car was flagged in the computer as stolen,' the cop explained after filling out an arrest report and then releasing me from his handcuffs.'
'Right,' I nodded my head tiredly. Then I drove away to resume my life.