All Commentary
Monday, June 5, 2017

My Morning In the Muddy Ditch of Traffic Court

Government is so strangely stuck in time, 30 years ago.

Government, from time immemorial, has been bureaucratic, maddening, and often cruel. You can read about this in the ancient manuscripts. Chuang Tzu in the 4th century B.C., for example, wrote: “I would rather roam and idle about in a muddy ditch, at my own amusement, than to be put under the restraints that the ruler would impose.”

Government has become our muddy ditch. Well, now you don’t have to make that choice. Government has become our muddy ditch. The reason is peculiar: we live in a digital age, when millions of providers are clamoring constantly for our attention, striving desperately to serve us more of what we want and in ways we never  thought possible. And they are doing it by inviting us to participate voluntarily.

Our lives are transformed in light of these forces. I never get lost driving thanks to map apps. I can listen to any music from the last half millennium by saying a few words out loud to my digital home assistant. I can buy any groceries, clothing, or electronics with a click and have them delivered to my home the next day. I can order up a burrito and have it at my desk in 20 minutes. My investments are handled from my phone. Even money transfers are instant. Our security relies on market forces.

Dinosaurs Wandering the Earth

Then there is government. The whole thing seems decades out of date. Literally, 30 years. It is almost untouched by the digital revolution and completely unchanged by the new service ethic that is sweeping the world.  

My only physical encounter with government usually involves traffic court.I don’t believe this can continue. Government has become the great anomaly. It’s outrageously conspicuous. The pressure to change will not go away. The change will surely come in time.

You know exactly what I mean if you deal with government every day. Most of us do not. At least, we try not to. We structure our lives to have as few encounters with government as we can.

My only physical encounter with government usually involves traffic court. I’m forever messing up some ticket thing, and I never learn my lesson. The right approach is to pay up as soon as possible and move on with your life. I don’t do this.

Instead, I delay and delay until I get dragged into the muddy ditch. That’s what happened to me this morning at Atlanta traffic court. So I’m clear, I met no bad people. No cruel people. Everyone was sweet, professional, hard working, compassionate, even loving. Even so, the experience was one long absurdity from beginning to end, even to the point of hilarity. I wasn’t the only one who experienced this. Every single person felt himself or herself trapped in a wacky world of nonsensical bureaucracy until they returned to the real world outside.

Life at Court

Part of the essence of modern life is that you are relieved from the burdens of physical presence. Government doesn’t get this at all. If you have to be at court, you absolutely have to be at court, as in physically there. That means driving where you don’t want to be, finding a parking place where there isn’t any, and waiting outside the courthouse until it opens. You have to be very early because otherwise you might not get a turn to see the judge.

I was there on a failure to appear (FTA) charge because I missed my initial court date. It turns out that I’m hardly alone. On a typical business day in Atlanta, 160 people fail to show up to their court hearing. In the old days, a warrant would be issued for their arrest. They would be thrown in the slammer and humiliated. Then they would finally cough up the thing the government wants anyway: money.

Government eventually ran out of resources to handle the problem this way. So a few years ago, Atlanta created what the government thinks of as a “fast food” version of a court hearing for the multitudes of people who just blow off their court hearing.

This is what I found myself in this morning. But here’s the thing. You have to get there early. If you do not, you will be turned away. The fast-food FTA court can only handle 20-30% of the people who want in on any given day. The rest go away disappointed and have to come back the next day, and the next, and the next.

Once you are admitted, you face a cop who is scanning you, ordering you around, barking commands, and so on, and then you have to go to the first room, which is one floor up. At this room, you are given a piece of paper to fill out and receive more instructions. Then you are called up and told to go to another room on another floor. You repeat that experience and get another set of papers. Then you go to yet another room where you finally see a judge.

In each of these rooms, there are cops, clerks, attorneys, and various employees of the court, who know this system very well. None of the citizens required to be there know it nearly as well, so everyone just meanders from place to place with a sense of confusion and disorientation.

Finally, the Judge

Finally you see the judge. You rise when he walks in, and then he lets you sit. He is a very nice man. He loves his courtroom. He is super happy with this new system. He promotes it heavily and calls us all citizens with rights. Don’t we know it! We are being served by him and the system in a way that is consistent with our desires, or so we are told. He is going to get us in and out in a surprisingly fast way. In fact, we will be out by noon.

They could have put a kiosk outside the courthouse and saved all this energy and time. Noon? Outrageous expense of time.

We would have checked our watches but, because we had to turn off our phones, no one could check. (Why do courtrooms ban smartphones? Many reasons, but probably they just don’t want reminders around that the world has changed.)

One by one, we were called up and a script was read, a full paragraph of legalese involving form numbers and a series of words that you would normally never hear.

Finally, the great moment arrived and I approached the bench. He issued me a $200 fine. I was to step through a door and go to the cashier. Another line. Finally, I got up to the person I was supposed to pay. She took my credit card and I was done. Four-plus hours had gone by from arrival to this great moment.

Weird, right? They could have put a kiosk outside the courthouse and saved all this energy and time. Or, better yet, they could have a system to allow me to do it online. Even better, what if the cop who gave me the initial ticket could have just charged me there on the spot? Sometimes it seems like the system of the developing world – cops just ask for cash – works better overall.

Why Is It Not Different?

The entire experience was a blast from the past. There were papers everywhere. Piles and piles of paper. And pens. And physical buildings. Wood-panelled walls. Judges with robes. Cops issuing commands. And all for what? To get a couple hundred bucks transferred from your bank account to the government’s.  

Why does it survive? Well, the building is there and they have to use it. All those people employed there need jobs (actually, they have real skills that would be valued by the private sector if they would just take the leap). There is a subordination element to having the masses slog around under the command of armed cops.

This is not a call for government to be reformed. It doesn’t work that way.This is not a call for government to be reformed. It doesn’t work that way. More than all these factors, though, there is a systemic reason why government keeps operating this way: it can’t really change. Its operations are baked into… its operations. It just keeps going on as it always has. There is no reason to change.

In most times, government’s falling behind the rest of society wouldn’t be that obvious. But we live in extraordinary times. Technological development is on fast-forward and it is changing the world, giving rise to new expectations of human service, efficiency, and quality. Our lives as consumers have been transformed over the last 20 years.  

Meanwhile, government is stuck in time.

This is not a call for government to be reformed. It doesn’t work that way. Private enterprise has changed the world because of market competition, entrepreneurship tested by the profit system, and a relentless drive to serve others better because that is the way you win. It evolves gradually in a way that is sought after by actual, choosing, hopeful people.

I have seen the past and it is grim. Government has none of these incentives. It can’t be reformed in a way that keeps up with the times. The problem is fundamental. We need to radically rethink what is we want government to do, if we want it to exist at all.

I don’t see any end to this problem. As time marches forward, government will continue to be stuck back in time, and it will attract leaders like the current crop who are drawn to the idea of turning back the clock.

But the truth is that we cannot and will not go back. The forces of progress are too strong, too relentless, too global, too irresistible. Eventually, the old structures of government will give way under the pressure.

Humanity will not forever tolerate this muddy ditch to despoil the beautiful, gleaming cities that are are being built by enterprise all over the world and especially right here in my hometown.

Until that day, you will always come from any encounter with government saying, “I have seen the past and it is grim.”