THE thought occurred to me again the other day as I tried to ease my nostril safely away from the hair clip of the woman jammed in next to me: why is the MTR crowded all day and not just at those hours referred to collectively as the rush hour? The answer lies, as does everything - except possibly unwanted pregnancies - with the Government. People are flying around in a fug at all hours of the working day, collecting forms, acquiring chops, sneaking photocopies, begging signatures and racing from station to station to find an unoccupied photo booth. And all this is in the service of the Government's vast empire of licensings, levies and permits. This medieval levying is the very oxygen of government. A staggering percentage of its income is flogged from the peasantry through licensing fees. They are the perfect complement to taxation. Taxation is the payment for state services that are either rarely used or are paid for privately anyway. Licensing is giving permission to do something that could be easily done without permission. In a busy place like Hong Kong, the combined bureaucratic effect is incomparable. You can only imagine an equivalent - India run by the Germans, perhaps. Take, for example, the Hong Kong Driving Licence, which is dispensed in Central in a ground-floor hall that is a cross between an employment office and a betting shop. For those who believe their days in Hong Kong are numbered, there is a one-year licence available. I imagine they've started selling like hot custard tarts. Indeed, the licences might prove an interesting political barometer. Even for more trusting souls, no driving licence is valid for more than three years. In Britain, for example, barring miscreancy, the licence is yours until you're 70. What can it be about Hong Kong people that they need three-year reviews? Do bits drop off them at regular intervals? Are they prone to sudden onsets of colour blindness? It cannot be anything personal. You fill out the renewal form involving the usual twaddle about birthdays and ID numbers and, for all I know now, your grandparents' place of birth in China. It does ask about disability, but you could bump into the counter in dark glasses with a white stick and the clerk would barely give you a glance. It's for the money, boys. That's what it's for. It gives work for the working woman, too, and because licence fees come in large numbers but small amounts for every imaginable function except bodily (they'll be working on that), there are thousands of these people. Poor anaemic souls who are suffering from windowless years under cheap strip lighting, in cardigans against the air-con with hair styles that have received a small electric charge. Be reasonable about licensing, throw that level of civil servant on to the streets and unemployment figures would start to look positively British. For a while, I thought one of the most brazen pieces of cheek on the part of the Government's licensing autocracy - and a good example of functionaries sitting down, thinking hard and making it up - was the Trade Promotion Licence issued by that paragon of reasoned good government, the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority (TELA). In this city of get-up-and-go, no one can organise a competitive promotion or lucky draw without this licence. TELA needs to know all the details, down to the colour of the balloons, a whole three weeks in advance. No newspaper can publish the results without the licence - and the Governor has hijacked RTHK's Letter to Hong Kong as his own version of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's fireside chats to tell us the legislative desks are being cleared for press freedom. The hell with press freedom. The licence costs a fat, grubby $800 and what is the use of a licence if there is nothing you cannot do without it? I was wrong about the Trade Promotion Licence. There is a levy which is such a whopper for nothing that it would make a Plantagenet tax collector blush with embarrassment. It is called the Business Registration Certificate and its office is a dependency of the procurator of the duty revenues, the Commissioner for Inland Revenue. Salaried readers might be interested to know it is an offence for me to write this article for payment without that certificate. (Certain critics may say it as an offence anyway. Others may lobby for its revocation.) I am not a company, I have no employees and I work from home. Yet I must pay the Government for that certificate before I can hark out one split infinitive. Another blow for press freedom. In fact, in this laissez-faire economy, no one is allowed to lift a finger in their own employ without a Business Registration Certificate. You have to pay the Government to be allowed to work. The cost is $2,250 per annum or that part of the annum that is left between the time you post the certification and the day you get the paper. They call my operation a sole proprietorship. So we had better look at what that involves, what the Government is allowing me to do for my money. Legally, I can now fall out of bed, taking the side table with me, take two steps to the right and right again and go through the bathroom sluice operation. Retracing my four steps and adding two, I can sit down at my desk, which is at the end of the bed, and switch on the computer. Prey as I am to idleness, foreign trips and bouts of unconsciousness, it is no coincidence that I actually do that probably 225 times a year. This means that for every occasion I do the bed-sluice-desk routine, I pay the Government $10. And what do I get for it? Nothing tangible, I assure you. Senior officials have not beaten a path to my door in gratitude, commissioning articles. Though junior officials did one morning. They were from the Business Registration Office and wanted to know where my $2,250 was. Knowing where you are is about the only advantage to a Business Registration Certificate - other people's advantage. Large creditors with tattoos on their eyelids look up my address in the BR Office record. For my money, I get shopped, too. Below me in the tunnels, citizens thrash backwards and forwards along the MTR fulfilling licensing requirements without question. Sometimes they do it twice because they did not have a photostat of their ID card as well as their ID card. They should carry a sheaf of them and an album of passport-sized photographs. If you're one short of the ever-growing requirement (four was the latest I came across), it's back down again to be swallowed by the seaside funfair picture booth along with a larcenous $30 and then spat at with four criminally over-exposed mug shots. Don't worry. The Government isn't. Neither, I should imagine, is the MTR.