L. Neil Smith's
Number 297, November 14, 2004

"Where can we go from here?"

See Instructions Before Beginning
by Lady Liberty

Special to TLE

This past week at work, we got some new equipment at the office. If you ever want to see a couple of adults act like it's Christmas and Santa Claus was very, very good to them, just show up to see us when those big colorful boxes arrive at our door! With great anticipation, my boss and I stopped what we were doing so that we could open a few packages. But the excitement lasted just until we had the first of the boxes open and its contents spread out on a table. You see, under all of the pretty pictures on outside of the box, there was some small print that said: Some assembly required.

If you've ever bought toys for a kid or some of that inexpensive pressed-wood furniture, you know exactly what the problem is with "some assembly required" goods. It's not that it's safer to ship delicate parts and pieces unassembled in in their own protective styrofoam cocoons. It's not that bookshelves take up far less room in the box when the component boards can all lay flat against one another. No, the problem typically lies with the instructions intended to help you through that "some assembly" that's required of you.

I'm not a stupid woman. I can handle simple tools such as hammers and screwdrivers with ease. I think I speak and understand the English language with some fluency. But when I see a sheet of instructions flutter out of a box of whatever it is I've purchased, I positively cringe. In far too many of my own experiences, the instructions appear to be put together by someone for whom English is not a first language and not a particularly fluent second language, either. And the translations all too often strike me as having been written by engineers in the first place. In other words, they're hopelessly—needlessly!—complicated, and the confusion is only multiplied when there's some question as to the sensibility of the words themselves.

Some months ago, I bought an exercise bike knowing full well that there was "some assembly required." That was the price I paid for getting a good deal as well as something I could fit into the trunk of my car. I did manage to put some of it together, but then found myself stuck. Even with an accompanying illustration (see fig. 12a) including tiny arrows showing direction and motion, I was lost.

"Put now the coupling (part 27) over the bolt (part 19, shown on the parts list as a screw rather than a bolt) and mount it to assembly from sec. 5 (which, by the way, was an upcoming section rather than one I'd completed). Place assembly on the correct side of the structure it goes (which was the "correct" side?). Do it for the other side the reverse of what you did to first." And then I was done with that part of the process. Except, that is, for "Take washer (part 52) for go between bolt and shaft and prior to connection with frame so assembly (see section 5) can move free and in proper range of motion for function (refer to fig. 20, a photo of the completely assembled product which didn't show what it was I was working on)." Huh?

I read and re-read the instructions. Finally, I put the paper down, picked up a couple of parts and pieces, put them together the way I thought they should probably go together, and attached them to the frame. Perfect! Well, okay. The first time I attached the pedals, they turned out to be on backwards. But by switching sides, everything worked flawlessly. It would have been so much simpler to package the parts for each side together in a little plastic bag labeled "left pedal assembly" and "right pedal assembly." And a little picture of the assembly spread out so that I could see which part went together in which order would have been invaluable.

Back at the office, I stared at an instruction sheet the manufacturer had kindly blown up to poster size. I caught glimpses of "insert anchor post (part 19) firm into base taking care to be frontward facing (part 2) until snap together is solid (caution to be careful post does not break)" and "refer fig. 17a on reverse" and I shuddered. Why does something that could be so simple have to be made so needlessly complex? Hours could be saved; frustration could be minimized. And if the instructions were simple and easily understood, the product would almost certainly work as advertised the first time you finish building it.

It wouldn't surprise me in the least that many of these assembly instructions are written by exactly the same kind of people who author legislation or government regulations. By trying to address specifically every possible contingency, the verbiage is almost always overly complex. Debate and compromise doesn't lead to consensus but rather to added layers of nuance (...not permitted under statute except when capitulated under conditions as described in part 17, paragraph 4 and within the parameters further defined under the itemizations of attachment D which is in effect for the first 120 days of the transition to...)

To add insult to injury, a tendency toward couching such statements in specialized terminology rather than in plain English means that most individuals and businesses alike have to hire interpreters (also called "lawyers") to translate for them (frequently with different lawyers resulting in different interpretations). As a direct result, we all too often don't get the product as advertised, or we end up with one that doesn't work at all. When that's an exercise bike, we sigh and start over. But when that's the government, disassembly is a little more difficult.

The government smothers its citizens in page after page of instructions intended to "help" us build our lives. From our families to our businesses; from our property to our health; and from our creative ideas to our civil liberties; we're folded, bent, stapled, and mutilated to fit into the assembly guidelines established by lawmakers and regulatory agencies. Within the thousands of pages of IRS code alone, sufficient contradictory rules exist that every taxpayer breaks some law merely by obeying others. Across the country, there are more than 22,000 laws and ordinances that are all basically intended to enforce the simple fact that it's illegal to shoot somebody except in self defense and to say that you should be careful with loaded guns. Why, we lament, can't the instructions be in plain English? Why don't we have some directions that we can easily understand and which aren't too complicated to implement?

The sad irony here is that we do have a well written set of instructions for a federal government. The verbiage is simple and can be understood by virtually anyone who has a basic education. The mechanics of the government assembled under such instructions are lean and efficient. Best of all, if we follow those instructions precisely, the government we build will work just as advertised (assuming, of course, that the parts and pieces aren't broken even prior to insertion into structure—but let's not get started on individual politicians). These instructions are, of course, better known as the Constitution.

Unfortunately, though the instructions aren't complicated, the resulting structure they were intended to build has become very much so. That's not because of a flaw in the instructions but rather in a longtime tendency of those in power to augment the parts and pieces with still more parts and pieces and plenty of bells and whistles. While you can add streamers to the handlebars of a bicycle or buy an optional but sturdier part for a piece of playground equipment without damaging the function of the finished product, there comes a time where random substitutions and overwhelming fillips will so interfere with the basic construct that they'll ensure the finished product won't work at all. Where the federal government is concerned, we're not quite to a state of complete non-function, but we're very, very close.

If you keep changing, replacing, adding, and revising the parts of something you're building, it could still serve some purpose though likely not the one intended. Modern sculpture, perhaps, or a boat anchor if nothing else. Our republican form of government is already so modified that it no longer functions at all the way it was intended. Sometime soon, it will likely stop functioning as anything resembling a republic all together and become instead the anchor that will drag liberty underneath a wave of socialism and, not too terribly long after that, some kind tyranny (even if many rules are ostensibly "for your own good," the resultant loss of freedom must be called tyranny by any definition).

The bookshelves are crooked, the bike won't ride, and the playground equipment is neither safe nor fun. So let's take them apart and start over trusting our "practice run" will help us to put it together correctly this time. We can do much the same thing with the government. Oh, it'll take awhile to unthread the nuts and bolts and to set things in proper order before beginning again. But it can be done. We can begin by demanding our politicians follow the instructions provided us to build a government based on the premise of liberty for all. As politicians new and old gear up to take the oath of office in a couple of months, what do you say we agree to actually hold them to that oath this time around?

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