Not long ago, while reading A.J.P. Taylor’s impressively turgid English History: 1914-1945, I found, suspended in the tepid depths of all the fussily annotated tables and statistics, a sentence that all but knocked me out of my chair. It read, “Until August 1914, a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could cheerfully grow old and hardly notice the existence of the state.” After catching my breath, I absorbed this for a moment and read on. In a few, seemingly casual lines, Taylor reveals how, within the limits of his bank account, “a citizen of almost any western nation could then live anywhere and travel anywhere he wished, without anyone’s permission.” Now transfixed, I read how Rupert Brooke had made a leisurely tour of North America in the year before the outbreak of the Great War, with only his personal calling card as identification. He would have been “appalled,” apparently, at anything so vulgar as owning a passport. When the 20-year-old Harold Macmillan traveled around Europe in early 1914, cycling back and forth over the scene of what would become some of the war’s bloodiest battles, he was “waved through international borders with as little fuss as if passing between Sussex and Hampshire.”
Perhaps it’s extrapolating too much from Brooke’s or Macmillan’s experience to conclude that, through deference and laziness, we’ve traded the rule of law for the tyranny of laws (and, for that matter, of lawyers). Anyone who has passed through the tender clutches of the Transportation Security Administration of late will likely have his or her own illustrative story. I might even have forgotten all about Taylor’s words had I not been sitting in my ground-floor study just a few days later, now writing about the Great War, when I was rudely arrested by another display of creeping public-sector intrusion on daily life. Someone was tapping, insistently, at my window. Abandoning the Somme, I went to the front door. A young man coated in designer stubble and with several bits of metal puncturing his face, clad in tennis shoes, and reeking of cigarette smoke, silently handed me a business card. It identified him as an employee of King County and gave his job title as Assistant Capital Project Manager, Project Planning and Preparation, and Delivery Section, Wastewater Treatment Division, Department of Natural Resources and Parks. “I’m here about the drains,” he said. We spoke for a minute or two in a language as mysterious to me as the hieroglyphics on the wall of a tomb. After listening to my visitor expound on the “infrastructure-assessment process” and “project delivery and maintenance team” of whom he was but the harbinger, I gathered that he wanted to dig a hole in my backyard. I shan’t detain the busy Chronicles reader with the full horror that followed, except to say that “Kafkaesque,” while going too far, might not be heading entirely in the wrong direction to describe the protracted nightmare that continues today. By and large, the many representatives of local government who appear on my property seem to have few actual duties beyond, as my original caller put it, “delivering a great interactive county-customer relationship,” and “ensuring a timely infrastructure result.” For the most part, they have proved incapable of either, but otherwise are welcome visitors. Perhaps I should consider myself lucky. Where I live, in Seattle, your chances of encountering the dead hand of the state in one form or another can be gauged from the fact that the first 68 pages of the local phone book are devoted to a close-typed inventory of available “Federal, State, County, Municipal, and City” services. These embrace everything from a Benefits and Grants Regional Coordinator and Assistant and a U.S. Labor Department Minorities and Women’s Bureau to an Art and Enhancements Community Project Office tasked with “investing some $3 million annually towards a continuing vibrant and diversified local cultural environment.” In this jungle of a governmental system, as incalculable as any Oriental sultanate, there’s even a fully staffed office exclusively concerned with “Interdepartmental Agency Relations.” Not long after my first conference about the drains, a lady from the U.S. Census Bureau knocked on my door with the exciting news that I had been randomly selected to take part in a federally funded study of “US Householder Attitudes to Crime” (I’m against it), and that this required her or her heirs and successors to interview me at quarterly intervals for the next six years. She seemed genuinely puzzled when I declined the honor.
Somewhere in all this, I believe, you’ll find almost everything that is wrong with modern America. The problem is an enforced servitude to the whims of government in its many corrosive forms: chronic overstaffing and inefficiency; satirically pompous mission statements, couched in a language from which all real meaning has been excised; spurious health and safety regulations; rampant taxes; interference in local businesses; the farce of modern air travel. This is a game that anyone can play; feel free to add your own.
Last July, my wife and I took our 11-year-old son to city hall in order to obtain his first U.S. passport. The Sisyphean ordeal that followed included an interminable period spent waiting while the clerk on duty attended to other, more pressing duties on her computer. At length, we were shown into a gray-painted inner den of Stalinist décor, on which a doom seemed to have fallen. The clerk began the ensuing interview by courteously announcing that we would not be interrupted “except for phone calls that simply can’t wait.” During the next half hour, there were four such calls, two of them on matters sufficiently complicated that it was necessary for her to talk at length. Several weeks later, my son’s passport duly arrived, but not the certified copy of his birth certificate we had supplied to the clerk and she had assured us would be “returned by Washington.” My subsequent e-mails to city hall initially went unanswered, but in time revealed that our friend there was on “extended health leave”—but could she, her assistant, help? The assistant’s prose style was that familiar bureaucratic mix of the impenetrably dense and the inappropriately colloquial. I addressed her as “Dear Mrs. Smith.” She addressed me as “Hi Chris.” Most of the text that followed was suggestive of nothing so much as a thick fog moving over a hazy landscape. The end result of this exchange concerning the lost document was a three-way stalemate. The State Department blamed city hall. City hall blamed the State Department, and, on a helpful customer-relations note, added, “The best and most easiest [sic] thing is for you to go to records and commence applycation [sic] for new certificate,” a process that takes four-to-six weeks and costs a rather specific $38.30. A case for that Interdepartmental Agency Relations service, perhaps, if only life were not quite so short.
During this same period, my son and I found ourselves in the audience enjoying our town’s annual summer parade. There was an agreeably ramshackle procession of vintage cars and wooden floats, as well as a variety of stilt-walkers, pirates, and clowns, and a man in a rather threadbare moose suit who threw candy to the crowd. After an interval came the incongruous sight of a convoy of gleaming-new black Cadillac convertibles. Each featured a sign advertising the arrival among us of “Your 2012 Mayor and City Council,” and in the front passenger seat of each a civil servant sat languorously acknowledging the people. The popular reaction appeared to be one of approval or even mild excitement at this panoply of quasiclassical splendor, which required only the presence of a robed slave muttering Memor vos es letalis from the back seat to complete the scene. The bureaucrats themselves certainly seemed to enjoy it.
About a week later, a recorded message on my answering machine told me that, because of “ongoing contract negotiations,” my “waste-management facilities team” would temporarily be unable to pay their scheduled visits to my neighborhood. This garbage strike, to give it its shorter name, came at the height of a summer heat wave. Scenes of almost medieval squalor followed, as America’s so-called Most Livable City bathed in the heady aroma of overflowing trash cans, which soon offered asylum to an impressive diversity of vermin. Despite offering to help in the relentless promotion of Seattle’s reputation for “cultural and racial diversity, and unparalleled quality of life,” the mayor’s website was not immediately able to say what to do in the event of rodents invading the city’s streets. I attended an open-house meeting at about this time, where the issue at debate was whether or not to give the city the power to annex some 12,000 homes in the currently unincorporated surrounding area. On my arrival, an obese young woman in shorts and a T-shirt who identified herself as a “city outreach manager,” one of many present, handed me an expensively printed color leaflet. It quoted Thomas Jefferson, and went on to observe how municipal government was
fully committed to revitalization of the [area in question], by working in partnership with community residents to craft a diversified Vision, goals, and objectives, and a willingness to find resources for the implementation of efforts.
“What about the rats?” I asked her. It is interesting how our public-sector officials continually assure us about the wonderfully integrated and streamlined services they offer us. Such a thing is a symptom of the decline of government. When the United States were still run as the Founding Fathers intended them to be, no national or local official would have thought it necessary (or proper) to speak in such terms.
When you hear such phrases as U.S. government agency, let alone the once-potent words Federal Bureau of Investigation, you perhaps think of an organization, offices, a reporting structure, and the like. Those things no doubt all apply, but in that world it is easy to forget the most important element: people. It wasn’t an entity called the FBI I dealt with recently, and who displayed an illiteracy and incompetence it would have been hard to credit even 20 years ago, when in general the Bureau’s communications were boring, but also accurately spelled and punctuated, sometimes even elegant. It was human beings, all of whose salaries, benefits, and pensions, let us remember, we pay for. Today, the FBI has literally dozens of press officers and other “community outreach” professionals, but apparently no one who can write good English. There’s probably a law that defines the rate at which the actual performance of a government agency gets worse as its patronizingly genial mission statements proliferate: Such is certainly the case at Washington’s J. Edgar Hoover Building, with its 14,000 “sworn employees” and $7.9 billion annual budget.
Not long ago, I perhaps rashly accepted the responsibility of writing a book about the fugitive film director Roman Polanski. Polanski himself declined to speak, although at one point I was authoritatively told that he considered me a “nosy fellow,” enough to give pause to anyone who happens to recall him using that same phrase to Jack Nicholson immediately before slicing open the actor’s nose in Chinatown, although not, I hope, ultimately prejudicial to the research process. Meanwhile, I had also made a rather detailed Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI to review at least a portion of their substantial file on Polanski. Eight months later the Bureau turned me down, noting that “U.S. person R. Polanski” was apparently still alive, and as far as they knew had not supplied his written consent to me. I replied, mentioning that Polanski was in fact a dual Franco-Polish citizen, and that he had been in exile from U.S. justice for 31 years. Several more months passed. Then one morning came an impressively embossed envelope from the Hoover building, and a letter signed by an individual who described himself as “Assistant Director and Coordinator External Communications, U.S. Department of Justice, Information Management Division.” He told me that, “after carefully considering your appeal, and as a result of discussions between FBI personnel and a member of my staff,” the Bureau would, after all, make available “certain records that might be responsive” to my request. A named “competent official” would “timely communicate” with me, he added.
Space prohibits all but the briefest summary of the interminable and soul-destroying ordeal that followed. Suffice it to say that the competent official never did communicate with me, “timely” or otherwise. After several weeks’ silence, I phoned the number given for my friend, the External Communications Coordinator. A message effusively announced how much he wished to speak to me, apologized that this wasn’t possible at present, and promised that he would return my call “at the very soonest opportunity.” (He may yet do so; that was only three years ago.) Over the coming months, I made several more such calls, always in office hours, clearly stating my business, and was invariably met by the impenetrable Maginot Line of the voicemail. Still nothing. Meanwhile, I wrote the actual book, which was delivered to a deadline. The first royalty check arrived. Our public culture prefers government services that are inept but spuriously benign to private ones which are efficient but may require some reciprocal effort on the part of the customer. About a year later, I actually got a phone call from an officer at the FBI—not the External Communications Coordinator, or his colleague, but a third party who explained that he had now “reviewed the full application process,” and that he regretted “a glitch” had occurred. The whole meeting between FBI personnel and staff of the Department of Justice had proceeded under a “faulty assumption,” he added. The official wasn’t immediately able to say what sort of assumption, but based on the fact that he referred more than once to my original request for “information pertaining to your own autobiography,” there was always the intriguing possibility that the FBI thought they were communicating directly with Roman Polanski, rather than with an aging Anglo-American author trying to turn a dollar. I subsequently wrote a letter of clarification and mild complaint to the director of the FBI, and still await his reply.
February 3 marked the centenary of the passage of the 16th Amendment, giving the federal government authority to impose and collect income taxes. I restricted myself to a muted celebration. Last year, I once again entered the strange, looking-glass world of the Internal Revenue Service. Unsurprisingly, the experience was not a happy one. My mission was to extract Form 6166, a one-sentence document which states that a named individual is a current U.S. taxpayer. (I needed it to apply for a refund from the British tax authorities—another intensely disconcerting exercise in pseudoconviviality and sustained incompetence on the part of a government entity, which if nothing else suggests the formula is universal.) Since I have been faithfully supplying quarterly checks to the U.S. Treasury for some 20 years, you would think this might be a relatively brisk matter: Someone at the IRS taps a few keys at his massively powerful computer, and voilà. But in another of those debilitating and expensive debates that constitute the basic fabric of today’s government-citizen relationship, nothing is quite as simple as it seems. Before extracting Form 6166, the taxpayer must also complete Form 8802, or Individual Application for United States Residency Certification, which comes with its own accompanying 12-page list of densely typed rules and instructions, among them the joyful news that the Treasury Department now charges “clients” a nonrefundable fee of $85 (up from $35 the year before) in order to “facilitate” the process. So just to confirm: You read a form before filling out and sending in a second form, accompanied by your check, which must be included but neither stapled nor clipped to your application, which may in turn prompt the U.S. government to begin a leisurely consideration of whether or not you pay your taxes.
In early June, I sent off my meticulously completed Form 8802, along with the fee and a polite cover letter. The IRS cashed my check a week later. In the last week of July, an important-sounding official at the Treasury Department wrote to tell me that “It was not possible to process [my] application,” since I had not yet “accurately and thoroughly” filed the necessary paperwork. Specifically, I had failed to provide a “binding statement, signed under penalty of perjury that, for the purposes of taxation, you are a U.S. person.” (The letter informing me of my error was addressed to a “Christopher Sanford.”) I wrote back to say that I had in fact supplied such a statement, and including a copy of my Form 8802 to prove it. In time, the IRS replied to say that “We haven’t resolved this matter because we haven’t yet completed all the research necessary for a complete response,” but promising that such a response would be forthcoming within no more than 45 working days, or about two-and-a-half months. (Just to repeat: What I was asking for was a piece of paper from the IRS to say that I had filed my 2011 tax return.) At the end of September, my one-line U.S. Residency Certification duly arrived, again made out to “Christopher Sanford.” In the four months since I had originally applied to the IRS, two close friends had died, the Olympic Games had come and gone, and I had written a book. After the desk-banging had died down, I took a breath and once more wrote to the IRS, pointing out that their error made the document useless for its purpose. In a now-familiar development, the Treasury Department then replied to say that they would “definitely contact me again within 45 days to let you know what action we are taking,” adding courteously, “If you prefer, you may write to us again at the address shown at the top of this letter, but remember to include the 14-digit reference number if you do.” Somehow, I always remind myself on these occasions that I am paying for their pensions. Given the financial apocalypse awaiting us, I’m sure the U.S. Treasury has more pressing things to do than to deal with a single, disaffected “client.” But according to its annual report, the IRS also prides itself on its “inclusivity,” and I have seldom felt more excluded from anything than from the strange mixture of aggression and incompetence that characterizes its service.
Since I’m British born, and thus hopelessly repressed, I can do no more than occasionally vent in magazines on the whole enigma of the proper government-citizen relationship. Others may have their own feelings on the subject. I only add that on my drive home at night I typically pass a long row of lock-up huts with a bright-red neon sign above them reading Public Storage. Of late, the letters sto have gone dark, and I must say I can relate to the resulting slogan.