KE Cellars

The petty tyranny of big government.

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Listen to the broadcast of You Tell Me on KTBB AM 600, Friday, March 22, 2013.

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Here’s a real-life story that explains why I’m not a fan of big government.

If you have a U.S. passport you will find on the first page a graphic reproduction of the beautiful calligraphy that forms the first three words of the Constitution. Those words are, of course, “We the People.” The words were not lightly chosen. The words “We the People” begin the document, and are inscribed in letters several times the size of the surrounding text, for a reason. The drafters of the Constitution wanted to make it clear that as it pertains to the relationship between the people and the government, the people stand superior.

The prominent positioning of the words “We the People” on my passport formed an almost unbearable irony as I clutched it while waiting to clear customs at New York’s JFK airport last Sunday.

We the People were there – between two and three hundred of us – U.S. citizens all, most trying to make connecting flights. What we all needed was a straightforward interaction with our government – namely, verification of our citizenship and admission back into our own country. Rather than that simple interaction, what we experienced is what I have come to call the petty tyranny of big government.

Out of 22 lanes at customs at JFK dedicated to processing returning U.S. citizens, the entirety of one was manned. As the line crawled and time ticked away, those with connecting flights stood anxiously and helplessly.

After about 30 minutes, one additional officer emerged from a back office somewhere and walked slowly to one of the empty booths. With a studied air of indifference to the long line of people waiting, he took his time moving his computer terminal an inch to the right, then an inch again back to the left. A slight tilt up of the screen. Oops, too much! A slight tilt back down. Rubber stamp placed in just the right position. Pens arranged on the work surface. Protective gloves extracted and donned. One of the gloves does not suit and, after consideration, is discarded. Another glove extracted and donned. Careful reading and processing of something on the computer terminal screen. A moment of thought as to what has just been read.

At long last, after about ten minutes, this customs agent, seated above a sign pledging courtesy and professionalism, declared his lane open. About 250 of us waiting in line now had  two Customs & Border Protection officers serving us.

One man whose flight connection was slipping away was about to speak up and ask why customs personnel that were just milling around couldn’t step into a booth and open a lane. We talked him out of it. “You don’t want to tick ‘em off,” we told him. “Make ‘em mad, and you’ll never get out of here,” we warned. The man agreed and stood in sheepish silence. I don’t know if he made his flight.

I made my flight – but barely. And as I stood there two thoughts occurred. First, a government that spends north of $3 trillion a year but yet cannot efficiently stamp passports cannot possibly deliver health care. Imagine being sick and in extremis and being confronted with the government health care analog to that government customs agent who wasted ten minutes moving his computer screen to and fro.

Second, by all appearances. those government customs personnel don’t spend much time considering that We the People stand superior to the government. When it comes to getting a passport stamped, We the People can’t take our business elsewhere. For that moment, employees of government have absolute power over citizens – the very definition of tyranny.

My experience Sunday may be isolated but I can’t help thinking it’s not. And it’s not to hear Delta Air Lines customer service personnel tell it. They’re the ones that have to clean up the messes of missed flight connections.

The lesson is that government has expanded nearly exponentially so far this century and yet the quality of one of its most basic services was the worst I’ve ever seen it.

Do we dare dismiss that as mere coincidence?


  1. Mark Olinger says:

    Tyranny is usually thought of as cruel and oppressive, and it often is, but the original definition of the term was rule by persons who lack legitimacy, whether they be malign or benevolent.

    The signers of the Declaration of Independence considered King George III a tyrant.

    What you experienced was not tyranny, but an ineffective system of welcoming returning citizens back home and nothing more.

  2. Michael Stevens says:

    Paul,

    It’s those dreaded Sequestration cuts that caused all of the grief on Sunday. Before Sequestration the Govt. would have had at least 3 of those 22 windows open!

  3. Don Gibbs says:

    I’m so sorry to hear about your experience. It’s happening everywhere there is a govt. worker! There needs to be a house cleaning and some, make that many dismisses. The question is what will work? Don

  4. The people who you were dealing with are unable to be fired, have reps that make max trouble if you try to fire them & try to make the most out of their hold on you.
    They know they are able to ease your suffering but this is the ONLY hold they have on you so they make the most of it…by slowing down.
    A new class of victims, they are!
    I have heard it explained by “they have no power so they magnify the 5 Min they have with you ‘show’ you’ who has the power….NOT YOU.
    This , by the way, is the power that Unions/claims depts./ motor vehicle dept/ hospital waiting rooms/schools/ etc.have over you.
    The minute they take care of you ….FLASH…their power is magically GONE.

    The more it is important to have their service is inversely proportional to their efficiency.

    My husband begins to “moo ‘ loudly in this situation….embarrassing but he does it with a smile & it makes everyone laugh.

  5. Ron Rather says:

    You are rignt. The government has no interest to be efficient.

    I had a similar experience in Dallas Last week. There were about 600 people and maybe 6 customs agents. A good manager would have checked the airline schedules and staffed accordingly. Not the Government.

    It took maybe 30 minutes to get the passport stamped and another 30 for luggage check.
    I made my connection, but others did not.

  6. I’ve spent nearly 4 decades in the nonprofit sector working in education and mental health. It was my experience of government during that career that turned me into a small government conservative. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed petty bureaucrats playing the game of “officiousness” with citizens they were hired to serve.

    You go to a desk or window, behind which sits a sour-faced career bureaucrat whose entire job is to take a piece of paper that you fill out and process it, add a stamp or something and tuck it into a file drawer somewhere. With the advent of the computer, it’s only gotten worse because now this bureaucrat has to type your form into a computer before he can file it. They often leave you standing there waiting impatiently while they slowly and carefully type the entire form. They do not dismiss you until they are done with the retyping the form and it has been accepted by the system. If some tiny little thing is wrong with the way you filled in the little boxes, you will likely be treated to a lecture regarding your weakness of character in having written out the full name of your state in line 22, paragraph 3, subsection 255A, when Section III, subsection 2, Line 5 of the “Instructions for Filling Out Request for Department of Administrative Affairs Approval to Install Widgets on Websites with Links to Official State Archived Documents” clearly states, “State names shall be entered on line 22, paragraph 3, subsection 255A as two letter United States Postal Service standard state abbreviations in all capital letters”

    AND You will not be released to return to your actual real life until you have made the required obeisance to this priest of the temple of government bureaucracy and satisfied his lust for relevance. They do not like it when you laugh or sneer at them or express your frustration or anger in any way and can and will find a thousand ways to punish you for any perceived disrespect.

    In a sane world, bureaucrats would soon become an endangered species.

    Tom King

  7. L Miles says:

    Mr. King,

    That is one of the BEST homilies of the insanity of the bureaucratic world I have ever read!

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