What You Should Think About Licensing Alien Drivers

“I do have a political agenda. It’s to have as few regulations as possible.”

–Dan Quayle

As far as I can tell, political commentary is not popular to the degree it enables people to understand an issue. However, it is popular to the degree it enables people to feel as if they understand an issue. In the best instances, this feeling comes from the satisfaction of having been presented with good information and sound analysis. In countless other instances, this feeling comes from the validation of strong emotions. Unfortunately, strong emotions are often inconsistent with political action based on good information and sound analysis.

After the latest Democratic Presidential candidates’ debate, it was a little disturbing to see so many political “experts” talking about the ramification of endorsing drivers’ licenses for illegal aliens. To begin, there was this jarring use of the term “illegals.” I would say “score one for Rovespeak” on that, but the architect of so much bogus language that almost changed mainstream discourse (e.g. “homicide bomber”) was actually a proponent of realistic immigration reform. Whatever the origins, the distillation of the term “illegal aliens” into the invective “illegals,” an utterance more spat than spoken in some circles, now seems to play a role in shaping the language of major network anchors as well.

Yet this is only the beginning of the problem. It is understandable that a political debate might be followed by discussion of about the popularity of a program that would allow illegal aliens to obtain drivers’ licenses. Experts are not mistaken to assert that, in a general election, any position short of “round ’em up, truck ’em out, and militarize the border” is going to be unpopular. Yet it seems like lunacy when this assessment of the politics of immigration spills over into thinking about immigration and other policies.

The purpose of licensing drivers has nothing at all to do with designating a national affiliation. Instead, it serves to provide some basic mechanism by which society can encourage uniform driving practices and promote a modicum of safety on the roads. The purpose of punishing unlicensed drivers has nothing at all to do with designating a national affiliation. Instead, that punishment serves to encourage drivers to obtain licenses and otherwise comply with rules established to promote traffic safety.

A dangerous driver careening wildly down the freeway doesn’t much care whether the blurs nearly missed, or the one eventually hit, are vehicles containing natural born Americans en route from Sunday school to a Cub Scout softball match or undocumented Mexican workers en route from an asparagus farm to a strawberry patch. Keeping the roads safe is a common concern. In a nation that is rational enough to recognize these sorts of universal concerns, practical policy responses are usually not controversial.

With so many political noise machines energizing the hostility toward immigrants who illegally bypass the arbitrary national quota system, it is no wonder that popular sentiments misconstrue a helpful public safety measure as “a reward for lawbreakers.” Were drivers’ licenses readily available to illegal aliens, they and everybody else in the nation would benefit from a more orderly flow of traffic. In a much more direct way than usual, hostility toward a measure like this brings suffering upon the hostile as well as the hated.

A more circumspect analysis reveals even more to consider. It is true that this kind of documentation could help illegal aliens build relationships with financial institutions, set aside funds to prepare for future tax obligations or criminal penalties, etc. This hurts who? Then there is the fact that participation in a bureaucracy like this could make some immigrants more likely to play by other American rules. Also, more information would be gathered and recorded about immigrant activity as it occurs within the United States. Again, is there any harm to this beyond upsetting the delicate sensibilities of political hatemongers?

Yet the parade of folly masking as conventional wisdom continues. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have both been subjected to widespread criticism for not pandering to opinion polls. In fairness, one might fault a leader for being completely out of touch with the general population. Declaring that it is important to take action with no regard whatsoever for the substance of any criticism is simply stupid. However, it seems a sort of reciprocal error to contend one should always respond to the criticism of the majority without regard to the substance of an underlying position.

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, closely linked with this sort of initiative, has long argued that it is a simple matter of public safety. Simple or not, there is no honest informed way to deny that it is a matter of public safety. As with a license to operate aircraft or a license to practice medicine, a license to operate a motor vehicle is not a birthright bestowed on those who happen to be born within a particular set of lines on a map. It is a merit achieved by demonstrating proficiency in the skills required to engage in those activities without posing a public menace.

Thus an incredibly poor understanding of the nature of citizenship couples with a triumph of animosity over understanding in the realm of immigration to create the conditions national leaders must face today. Personally, I am pleased to see Hillary Clinton allowing her voice to favor a good idea over a shrewd opportunity for political pandering. I believe it was Christopher Hitchens who said, “she lacks even the minimal political courage of her husband.” Though my feelings about the Clintons are far from wholly negative, I could not deny a ring of truth in that chilling accusation. It is refreshing to witness at least one bit of evidence that challenges that perception.

On the other hand, I have to say that in my own lifetime I’ve never seen a public figure make it so far in American politics without personally disappointing me as Barack Obama already has. He endorsed licensing illegal alien drivers without so much as a flinch at the thought of how much that would play into the hateful narratives of one particular thriving media fringe. I cannot predict just how this and countless other issues like it will play out as the primary season unfolds and the general elections follow. Yet I can say it is nice not to have to look so far from the mainstream to see actual evidence of personal and intellectual integrity. Now if only the media could begin to catch up with aspiring national leaders . . . we might yet have the makings of a functional democratic process in our midst.

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