Philosophy against Misosophy



Krakow, 1941



Essays by Me

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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?

Anthony Flood


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.

Governmental identity 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.  

The controversy 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.  

The 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.

The 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 outrage.

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.  

See also:   

Congressman Ron Paul, M.D. (Rep.-TX) denounces ID card provision in intelligence bill, December 8, 2004, and again on January 13, 2005.

Peter Hitchens, Contempt for Liberty, The Spectator, 10 April 2004

Sean Gabb, A Libertarian Conservative Case against Identity Cards, 1994