While having lunch with a friend, I expressed frustration in my attempt to obtain a permit from the city that would allow a moving van to park in front of my house. The commission staffers overseeing the traffic department had no idea which division handled permits and so I stumbled through the government directory until I landed in the right place, feeling like a long distance swimmer who’d finally reached shore. My joy was short-lived, however, when I discovered the amount of red tape that faced me.
My friend, who is a lawyer, listened to my tale with a sympathetic expression but when I’d finished, asked why I had bothered. “Nobody buys a permit for a moving van,” he assured me. “Just park it in the street.”
My jaw dropped like a stone through water. “What? You think I should flaunt the regulations?”
My question wasn’t frivolous. When bureaucracies create rules that are cumbersome, nonsensical or unjust, it is true those rules tend to be ignored. But I take Socrates’ view that when a citizen accepts the protection of society, that citizen has a duty to accept its rules or change them. Ignoring the law weakens the social fabric.
Case in point. A recent article in an e-publication called The Hill described how a few in Congress have risen in protest to a “secret” law that authorizes spying on some Americans’ emails and online messages. This secret law goes beyond the Edward Snowden revelations, (article) and is, according to those protesting, a serious violation of our civil liberties. They have asked the president to put a stop to this incursion and make the infractions public. The NSA opposes these demands and so a stalemate exists between two branches of government. That stalemate — brought about when the president chooses to uphold some of the laws some of the time but not all of the laws all of the time — is a sign of social decay.
My encounter with the local permit department is of no consequence compared to what’s going on at the national level. But the principle is the same. Selective obedience of the law by those who hold high office or those who hold none take us to the same road. Anarchy.