Because They Can, Wingtip Edition

Larry Moore’s story is not one of those “rags to riches” tales. It’s just the story of a homeless alcoholic, living under a bridge, who decided it was time for a change and made one. Moore cleaned himself up, went into the shoe shining business, and over a fairly short period of time saved up enough money to get off the street and rent an apartment. Things were looking good.

Until, that is, he found himself stepped on by a much bigger shoe than the 10Ws he was used to buffing and polishing. Three guesses what kind of organization wears that size shoe. You’ll probably only need one.

Someone from San Francisco’s “Department of Public Works” caught wind of Moore’s success. In short order, a bureaucrat tracked him down and shook him down: That rent money would instead have to be paid to the city government. He’d also have to jump through some hoops (produce government-approved identification papers, for example). In return for his cooperation, the bureaucrats just might allow themselves to be persuaded to issue him a “permit” to work for a living, “allow” him to save more money up to move into a place with a roof overhead, etc.

You can keep up with Moore’s story at the San Francisco Chronicle. By most people’s standards, he’s “taking it well,” and I wish him the best of luck.

What I find surprising about Moore’s story is that anyone’s surprised by Moore’s story. The reason Moore is unusual is not that his aspirations ran up against the demands of the protection racket we call “government.” The reason his story stands out that is he’s not used to that happening, having lived “off-grid” for several years. Most of us take this kind of thing for granted. If we hadn’t been conditioned over time to do so, chances are most of us wouldn’t put up with it at all.

From the time we’re born (birth certificate) to the time we die (death certificate), the interstices of our lives are filled with government paperwork, government permissions, government prohibitions — fill out the W-9, get in line to buy your license plates, walk through the metal detector. Taken as a whole, complying with all these mandates is sort of like walking around with 500-pound monkeys on our backs.

We take it for granted because most of us don’t see it as a whole or as a system. We perceive it “a la carte.” Any particular one of these impositions, taken as a single instance, just doesn’t seem like that big a deal unless we’re diving in all at once — like, say, a poor, unemployed, homeless person trying to earn money, work at a job and find a home.

We put up with it because it comes at us in small pieces. It’s easier to let the monkey grab part of our lunch than to fight the monkey. The monkey gets heavier, but we get used to it. He takes a little more of our lunch today than he did last Friday, but hey, we could all stand to lose a little weight, right?

Two hundred years ago, the notion that the legitimacy of government rests on “the consent of the governed” must have seemed like a novel idea. These days, it sounds more like the game plan for a creeping swindle in which “consent” equals “weary resignation” to each tiny additional increment of coercion. It’s a lot easier to see the shape of the thing, and a lot less tempting to consent to its ministrations, when it comes at you all at once. So … it doesn’t. “Consent” has, over time, ceased to be an active process of engagement and turned into ratification through apathy.

“Departments of Public Works” officials and other gangsters do what they do because they can — and they get away with it not because we say “yes,” but because we don’t say “no.”

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