Michael Arrington is a tech publisher and blogger who made a good amount of money selling his previous blog, Techcrunch. He bought a boat with some of it, a nice one, with state of the art electronics. On the day his new toy was to be delivered, he had to work through customs and Homeland Security paperwork, since the boat was built in Canada. Something went wrong, something stupid. He writes,
“My job was to show up and sign forms and then leave with Buddy (WA sales tax and registration fees come a week later). DHS takes documents supplied by the builder and creates a government form that includes basic information about the boat, including the price. The primary form, prepared by the government, had an error. The price was copied from the invoice, but DHS changed the currency from Canadian to U.S. dollars. It has language at the bottom with serious sounding statements that the information is true and correct, and a signature block.”
It’s serious all right. It is a government form, and signing it is a legal attest that the information is correct. Arrington continues,
“I pointed out the error and suggested that we simply change the currency from US $ to CAD $ so that is was correct. Or instead, amend the amount so that it was correct in U.S. dollars. I thought this was important because I was signing it and swearing that the information, and specifically the price, was correct.”
This is not just the smart and legal thing to do, but the right thing to do, and what the government, by making such forms the way they are, expects a citizen to do. But was this how his response was taken? Oh, no:
“The DHS agent didn’t care about the error and told me to sign the form anyway. “It’s just paperwork, it doesn’t matter,” she said. I declined. She called another agent and said simply “He won’t sign the form.” I asked to speak to that agent to give them a more complete picture of the situation. She wouldn’t allow that. Then she seized the boat. As in, demanded that we get off the boat, demanded the keys and took physical control of it.”
That’s right. Arrington’s refusal to lie on an official document was treated as if he was the one in the wrong, and uncooperative, when the truth was that the officials had made an error, and were too lazy and unprofessional to fix it. He concludes…
“So now I have to hire a lawyer to try to figure all this out. And I will figure it out, eventually. My point in writing this isn’t to whine. Like I said, this will get worked out one way or another. No, it’s to highlight how screwed up our government bureaucracy has become.
“A person with a gun and a government badge asked me to swear in writing that a lie was true today. And when I didn’t do what she wanted she simply took my boat and asked me to leave. What would you have done? Maybe most people would have just signed the form. The U.S. and CA dollars are almost the same value right now (although they weren’t when I made most of the payments on the boat), so what’s the bother?
“Well, to me it’s the principle involved, being told to sign and swear to something false, or else. And it would have been SO FUCKING EASY to just correct the form so that I wasn’t swearing to something that was false. As usual, I took the “or else” option. And the bastards stole my boat.”
What would I do? I hope I would do what he did; I think I would. I’m a lawyer: signing an official document that I know is false is grounds for the suspension of my license. Is it unethical to sign a false document, when as Arrington says, a government goon with gun is telling you to sign anyway? There are arguments both ways, but ultimately it comes to this: lying is unethical, and the fact that someone in authority is telling you to do something wrong is not justification for doing it.
On the other hand, Arrington is rich (I sure can’t afford a boat), and has the resources to wage the good fight on principle. It is easy to say we all should oppose this kind of abuse of power, but in practical terms, most of us can’t, or rather, shouldn’t. It would not be ethical to sacrifice my son’s education to put a lazy DHS agent in her place. Or would it?
As I have written here often, and Arrington concludes, our government is becoming a monster. In this case, its agents sought to corrupt a citizen who only wanted to do the right thing, and was ordered to do wrong. This is far more important and significant than compelling a small lie on some red tape paperwork. This is the government telling a citizen, “Right and wrong are what we say it is, and when, you insignificant worm. When we say it’s wrong to lie, it’s wrong. When we tell you to lie, it’s right, and you better do as we say. The law is what we say it is. Good is what we say it is. Your job is to shut up and do what you’re told, not think for yourself.”
No, on second thought, it would be ethical to risk my son’s education to resist this trend. Arrington is both courageous and right. If we all just take the path of least resistance, the government will make us corrupt and impotent. It already is well on the way to doing just that.
Arrington caps his account with this rueful joke:
“I’ll probably get droned now, too.”
I hope it’s a joke.