When the "Federal" Government decides that
its "war on terrorism" requires us all to be bar-coded, how can
post-Constitutional America, which long ago lowered barriers to
governmental fiat, object?
Government Identity Cards:
Why Strain at a Gnat, But Swallow a Camel?
All governments have
identity (ID) cards on their wish lists, for governments are intrinsically
self-aggrandizing institutions. The only thing that distinguishes them
from “organized crime” is legitimacy. Thus the ubiquitous polls, surveys,
“consultations,” and other barometers that measure how much those who pick
our pockets can get away with today.
cards are an accounting device. They raise no special moral issue not
already addressed in one’s support for the enterprise for which the
accounting is undertaken. The good (or evil) of the former is imputable
to the latter.
depends on a perverse notion of “entitlement.” Its normal meaning has
been driven underground. Normally, one is entitled to keep, control, and
dispose of the entire product of one’s own labor. Abnormally, one is not
so entitled, but is rather a slave: someone else controls that product.
Those who would
reserve “slavery” for the legal ownership of human beings point out that
at least a portion of one’s product is not formally allocated to
others, but remains under one’s own control. What is overlooked is that
it remains so only by permission and not by right that transcends
permission. According to this ideology, right is nothing more than
socially approved permission.
right of the approvers to approve or withhold approval, however, is an
exception. It inheres in them absolutely as it were by a secular
equivalent of divine right. It is not a function of someone else’s
permission. Modern states also reserve the right (decidedly not in
the sense of “are permitted”) to conscript young people and put them in
kill-or-be-killed situations. Resistance to such servitude invites
incarceration. Conscription is a coerced choice between modes of slavery.
entitlements (so-called) of the 20th Century are excessive only by the
standards of the 19th. The tax-paying slave needed only more conditioning
to see how indispensable they were to civilized existence. Identity cards
go too far only by 20th-Century standards. Perhaps their time has come in
the 21st. We will now politely debate what only yesterday we deemed an
Since we voluntarily
give personal information to private corporations (e.g., when we apply for
employment or a credit card), many wonder what the fuss is about. Indeed,
one may rightly wonder what becomes of such information. For should any
private corporation attract the Government’s adverse scrutiny, its
computer disk drives can be confiscated.
To the degree
that a corporation is not merely a quasi-extension of the Government and
actually has to compete for business, however, to that degree it has a
strong incentive to use personal information only for business purposes
disclosed in advance. News that it has done otherwise would jeopardize
that corporation’s existence.
Governments have no such incentive, for there is no formal provision for
their going out of business. This is so no matter how many abuses of
data-gathering they commit, how many personnel records they lose, how much
money they confiscate in taxes and then spend contrary to stated purposes,
or how many people are killed in their foreign adventures. They merely
get displaced by rival governments. They are exempt from the market
discipline that customers who can take their business elsewhere impose,
for citizens are not customers.
Problems related to immigration provide no hook on which to hang a case
for identity cards. A system of truly private land ownership sorts all
migration of individuals into two categories: (1) migration onto privately
held land by invitation only and (2) trespassing. The lines of
accountability are clear. Complaints about the behavior of invited
migrants are to be addressed, not to an “immigration czar” or some other
political hack, but to the appropriate landowners. They cannot ignore such
complaints with economic impunity. They are also free to prosecute
trespassers as they would any other violators of property rights.
Unfortunately, the current statist arrangement prevents the emergence of a
system of truly private land ownership.
Governmental ID cards
raise only a superficial issue. The Government already has a major, if not
yet the final, say about what happens to the product of our labor,
savings, and investment. It is a comparatively small matter to surrender
personal information to Leviathan. (At some point they will not ask for
it, but demand it, if not simply take it.) If we believe in
“entitlements,” we have already given the game away in favor of such
cards. Only if we are prepared to privatize the services that the
Government monopolizes can we coherently oppose its striving for
omnipotence by way of omniscience.
*This essay first appeared as
“Why Strain at a Gnat But Swallow a Camel?”
in Philosophy Pathways, Number 50, 26 January 2003 It is published
here with minor changes.
Congressman Ron Paul,
denounces ID card provision in
intelligence bill, December 8, 2004, and
on January 13, 2005.
Contempt for Liberty, The Spectator, 10 April
A Libertarian Conservative Case against Identity