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?