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Should the State License Human Beings?

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Democratic presidential candidates are tripping over the driver’s-licenses-for-illegal-aliens issue like a bunch of old slapstick vaudevillians.

What’s so comical about their antics is that the issue demonstrates that politicians are locked into bad assumptions from top to bottom. Start with driver’s licenses. In one debate Sen. Chris Dodd said driving “is a privilege not a right.” That’s a common belief. But it’s incoherent.

In common parlance, a privilege is something someone grants to someone else. If I let my teenager borrow my car, that’s a privilege I extend to him. Since it’s my car, I have the legitimate authority to do this. I may set the terms, and I can revoke the privilege at will. My child has no rights in the matter. He is in the position of a supplicant. (When he grows up and I need to borrow his car, the roles will be reversed.)

This sort of privilege, then, grows out of property ownership. The owner sets the rules of use, and no one may rightfully use the property without the owner’s permission. Privileges regarding use are an owner’s to bestow — or not.

What does a driving privilege mean when we’re talking about adults and the government? Where does the government get the authority to bestow, deny, or revoke this alleged privilege? Under American political theory, the government supposedly rules by the consent of the governed. Sometimes it is held that the government is us. If that is true, the grantor of the driving privilege must ultimately be the people.

Who is the grantee? Also the people. So we the people grant us the people the privilege to drive. That makes no sense.

But it does make sense if we realize that this theory of government is a fraud. The government is something over and above the people with the power to issue decrees we are legally required to obey under threat of punishment. True, each of us gets an infinitesimal say in who holds office, but that doesn’t change the essential fact that once candidates are in office, they issue orders and we defy them at our peril. If you don’t like the orders, you are instructed to exercise your “power” to elect a new government. Good luck with that.

The upshot is that the government-issued driver’s license is incompatible with a truly free society. So are government-owned roads, for that matter. We may confidently predict that owners of private roads, which have existed through history, would require drivers to have proof of competence, but that is a far cry from the system of identification that constitutes today’s driver’s license. Under the REAL ID legislation passed by Congress the link between identification and permission to drive will take a quantum leap.

If Americans shouldn’t need the government’s permission to drive, why should so-called illegal aliens, who are merely undocumented residents, need it?

Presidential candidates find it in their interest to one-up their rivals in showing how tough they want to be on “border security.” Denying undocumented residents permission to drive is part of their posturing. So are the threats to imprison employers who hire them. How odious. People who have no other way of getting into the United States sneak in to make a better life through hard work. Preventing them from driving and threatening their prospective employers are flagrant attacks on innocent people’s ability to improve their lot in life.

As we head into Thanksgiving, let us contemplate this disgrace to America’s noble heritage.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.