Sunday, November 11, 2001

Ever since the dawning of the computer and information age, political philosophers have wondered whether the technological revolution would liberate people from intrusive government on the one hand, or lead to an Orwellian “1984” existence with the government monitoring every aspect of our private lives.

So far, the information revolution has happily ushered in a freedom revolution around many parts of the globe.

But the authoritarians may be about to take a leap forward in using modern technology to invade more of our freedoms and privacy. And as with almost all governmental expansions, it is about to be justified as a way to protect us. I am speaking of the national ID card mania that seems to be gathering widespread support inside and outside of government.

Since September 11, the demands for establishing a federal forgery-proof internal passport system have become more persistent than ever. And unfortunately, more persuasive to the public, as indicated by recent polls showing a majority of voters approving of the concept.

The idea is to create a tracking system so law enforcement can better hunt down potential terrorists and illegal immigrants. Larry Ellison, the chief executive officer of Oracle has offered the government the software for the needed data base system free of charge.

The D.C. public school system has taken the ID card idea to a new level of absurdity by suggesting that elementary school students should be fingerprinted and issued a glossy photographed dog tag.

No telling when a 7-year-old is going to commit some heinous act of terrorism. The good news is that the public outrage to this concept was so intense that the D.C. government quickly retreated as cooler heads prevailed.

In the wake of the murderous acts of September 11, nearly everyone wants the government to take extra prudent security measures to prevent a recurrence. But an ID card system with a biometric identifier, such as a fingerprint or a retina scan, linked to a computer data base with private information about citizens, gives too much power to the people in our government who were so derelict in their duty to protect us in the first place.

Many advocates of ID cards maintain that if you’re a law-abiding citizen, it would be no burden at all and perhaps it might even be a convenience. (I’m convinced that people who believe this haven’t had to do battle with the bureaucracy at the local motor vehicles department lately to get a new driver’s license.)

The U.S. should resist a national ID requirement. These kinds of internal passport systems were the hallmark of totalitarian nations and other police state societies that we fought against in World War II and the Cold War. ID cards in Eastern Europe and also in South Africa during the apartheid era were a method by which the police could harass and even arrest those who were members of groups out of favor with the government: Jews, blacks, political protesters, and so on.

Almost every national ID card proposal would include a national computer data base that would or could contain all sorts of information about you and me. Police, employers, school officials, etc., would phone into this data base to verify our citizenship and records. I have suggested that the government use the easy-to-remember number: 1-800-BIG-BROTHER.

With a small microchip on the card, the government could storehouse every conceivable piece of data about our private lives on the card: extensive health and education records, our job history, political affiliation, our past residences, information about whether we own a gun and how many, perhaps income and Internal Revenue Service data, as well.

It is also interesting that every time a big-government liberal suggests some new expansive governmental power, it is often linked to setting up a national ID card. Gun control fanatics have always lusted after the idea of a national registry of gun ownership in America which would, of course, facilitate rounding up the guns if the government ever tried to disarm citizens.

Conservatives should never forget that the last major politician who called for national identifier card was none other than Hillary Clinton when she wanted to nationalize the health care system in America. If we already had a national ID card to “fight terrorism,” this would only make Hillary’s socialistic dream all the more achievable.

We have seen time and again throughout history that when the government gathers information about us, it often uses that data for illegal and unconstitutional purposes. The IRS just a few years ago admitted, for example, that the “confidential” IRS records of thousands of Americans were invaded by snooping IRS agents. The government used supposedly confidential Census Bureau information to track down Japanese-Americans during the internment during World War II.

Call me a natural skeptic, but I refuse to believe an ID card system would only be used by government officials for legitimate purposes.

The idea of a national ID card system with another Janet Reno in the Justice Department is frankly very frightening.

What is worst of all, the ID card system will do nothing to prevent terrorism or deter illegal immigration. Terrorists can come to the United States in any one of dozens of ways legally. They can come as tourists, students, legal immigrants, diplomats, and on and on.

A national ID card scheme would have done nothing to deter the September 11 calamity. These terrorists were here in the country legally.

For those foreigners who do enter illegally, falsified documents are available quickly and at a low cost. Any design of a card the government can come up with, counterfeiters can easily copy.

You can obtain half-decent forgeries of drivers licenses and birth certificates for less than $100 at the border in California. A more secure system might double that price, which could potentially deter some poor Mexican agriculture workers from trekking across the border illegally, but a $500 “fee” to obtain false paperwork would hardly be a deterrent against well-financed militant terrorists who plan multi-billion-dollar operations.

We shouldn’t be surprised that this dangerous idea is gaining traction during this time of national crisis. One recurring lesson of wartime is that government in Washington always grabs for new powers that it could never secure during times of peace. War has been an engine of government growth and invasiveness because the state very rarely gives back the freedoms it has usurped during the time of emergency.

In fact, in his classic book “Crisis and Leviathan,” historian Robert Higgs provides dozens of examples of how government has nearly doubled in size as a lasting legacy of every major war Uncle Sam has fought.

It is precisely our free and open society that makes terrorists despise us. If we do decide to surrender our rights and freedoms from big government, I believe we will have allowed the terrorists to achieve a great victory over the American way of life we are now unified as a nation in trying to defend.

Stephen Moore is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

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