Jeff Jacoby

In the private economy, automatic renewals are routine. From Netflix subscriptions to homeowner's insurance to newspaper delivery, vendors and service providers of every description make it simple to keep your account up-to-date. Your antivirus software and 401(k) investments can be put on autopilot, refreshing at regular intervals unless you choose to opt out. Why shouldn't your driver's license work the same way?

Maybe the real question is why the state should license drivers in the first place.

It's one thing to require would-be motorists to enroll in driver's-education classes and to be tested on their knowledge of safe driving practices and highway signs and signals. And of course anyone getting behind the wheel of a car should be liable for damage caused through negligence or irresponsibility. But to condition driving itself on governmental permission? To extort a chunk of money every few years to keep that permission current? By what right?

It's no answer to say that driving can be dangerous or that roads are public property. Drinking bourbon, building campfires, and playing ice hockey can be dangerous too, but you don't need Big Brother's say-so before you can do them. And if drivers have to be licensed because they use public roadways, why shouldn't bicyclists, joggers, and skateboarders be licensed as well?

In the new state budget he unveiled last week, Governor Deval Patrick chops $15 million from the Registry of Motor Vehicles. "We have to start doing things differently in a whole host of areas," he explained. "That is not just government doing things differently; it is asking citizens to interact with their government differently."

Agreed. But rather than merely trimming the Registry's budget, what Patrick should be asking is why issuing or renewing driver's licenses needs to be a public function at all. You shouldn't need a license to drive a car any more than you need one to use a computer or ride a horse. I'm grateful that my latest trip to the Registry went so briskly. If Patrick is really open to doing things differently, however, eliminating those trips altogether would be a great step forward.

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for