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The De Facto National ID

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Back in 1996 some members of Congress got the bright idea that they could impose a national ID card on the American people through the backdoor by linking driver’s licenses to Social Security numbers. Fortunately, widespread concern about violations of privacy caused the law to be repealed in 1999 before it took effect.

But Washington operates on the pernicious principle that no bad idea really dies. It just waits offstage until a good crisis comes along. The original driver’s license proposal was part of an immigrant-control bill. That cause apparently did not create enough hysteria to enable the government to foist a de facto national ID on the American people. But the statist’s hope springs eternal, and sure enough his crisis has come along: the War on Terrorism. Just as night follows day, the backdoor national ID is back on the agenda.

Sen. Richard Durbin has introduced a bill to standardize the driver’s licenses of all states, converting them into a de facto national ID. Durbin’s bill would permit “rapid data-sharing among certain government agencies,” the Washington Post reported. It would do more than prescribe standards for how the card should be constructed. It would also mandate the criteria for qualifying for a license. And of course the federal government would be ready to give money to the states to carry out their newly imposed responsibilities.

This wouldn’t be a full-blown ID card, mainly because one is not required to have a driver’s license unless one drives. But most people do drive, so that is not much of an impediment. Moreover, since you can’t fly without an acceptable photo ID, even nondrivers find it necessary to get state-issued identification. In other words, if this isn’t a national ID, it’ll do until the real thing comes along.

The public is still not thrilled with the idea of a national ID, although it wins in some public opinion polls. It’s too soon to know what people think of a standardized driver’s license. It doesn’t sound nearly as threatening as a card issued by the federal government. And that may be its appeal to political leaders. It’s the same warm, safe driver’s license we’ve always carried, right? It’s just a little different.

Actually, it would be a lot different. A standardized license, with a common system for biometric identification, would enable government agencies to establish and easily link to a central database containing information on virtually all adult Americans. Easy sharing of information among agencies is precisely why this system is attractive to its sponsors. Ironically, advocates of a standard license say it will make identity theft harder. But others say it might make it easier. Break into the central database and you’ve hit the mother lode for sure. (A central medical database is not far off in the future.)

More ominously, anything approaching a national ID will facilitate government’s monitoring of people. That’s the point! If the system is supposed to make it easier to catch terrorists, it has to make it easier to watch everyone. After all, the law-enforcement folks don’t know who the terrorists are. The ones involved in the September 11 atrocities had their papers in order. So how a national ID, even a de facto one, would have caught them is a mystery.

We should assume that any sophisticated criminal operation will have the means to produce or procure fake IDs. So law-abiding people won’t even get protection in return for the harassment and monitoring they will undergo. All they’ll have is a false sense of security.

We have to look at the big picture. Senator Durbin and his allies may not have this in mind, but his plan will inevitably soften up the American people for more and more government surveillance. After this “harmless” first step is taken, more steps will follow. We’ll be required to have the card on us at all times. We’ll be required to produce it on demand. We’ll be required to swipe it on various occasions. It is not unreasonable to expect that it will gradually be transformed into an internal passport—all in the name of fighting terrorism.

Will people accept such treatment? Stay tuned.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.