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National ID, By Itself, Violates Liberty

As I have pointed out over the past month and The Wall Street Journal’s Danny Yadron noted last week, many members of Congress are looking to impose a mandatory national identification system. Demonstrating that this attempt is gaining momentum, The Washington Post editorialized in favor of a national ID system earlier this month. Its editors wrote:

Critics on both the civil-liberties left and the libertarian right have long resisted such cards as the embodiment of a Big Brother brand of government, omniscient, invasive and tentacular.  Their criticisms ring hollow…. The proliferation of passports for foreign travel has not encroached on Americans’ civil liberties. Why would another form of ID, used for employment verification, pose such a threat?

Three things to notice about this line of reasoning: 1) It presupposes that a restriction of one’s ability to remain anonymous does not “encroach on Americans’ civil liberties”; 2) It cites without evidence that the government’s involvement in the regulation of travel has not violated (in other ways) Americans’ civil liberties; and 3) It assumes that this universal worker ID would remain limited to employment verification. Nothing could be clearer than that each of these arguments is totally false.

First, the Constitution hints at a right to remain anonymous in the Fourth Amendment, which protects “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects.” The Supreme Court held in 1995 that “anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority… It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights.” Regardless of whether this right can or should be limited in certain circumstances, it is nonetheless true that laws that require identification do, in fact, restrict the rights of Americans -- in particular, their right to move or work anonymously, which many Americans might otherwise do for various reasons.

Second, the government’s regulation of travel has been a disaster for Americans’ civil liberties. It was not until 1995 that the federal government began requiring some passengers to carry photo identification to enter a plane. Since then, the intrusions have constantly escalated, not based on the airline’s desire for safety, but for political purposes to create a pretense of safety, particularly after 9/11. The government has essentially required “internal passports” to travel throughout the U.S. The TSA’s warrantless searches, confiscation of private property, and invasive pat-downs as a condition for travel clearly “encroach on Americans’ civil liberties,” not to mention their dignity.

Third, the belief that this new ID would be limited to employment is simply not credible. Sen. John McCain has already said he wants one for national security reasons (9/11 justified “this kind of identification”). Conservative author David Frum wants one for voting and social services. A Justice Department task force under Presidents Reagan and Bush Sr. advocated a national ID to implement gun control -- an idea that is being revitalized under President Obama.

Moreover, the impetus for this national ID push is to prevent unauthorized workers -- “illegal aliens”—from maintaining employment in the U.S. This principle -- that if the government can prevent these workers from maintaining employment, then they won’t come -- could apply to any normal activity. The U.S. already has a provision that criminalizes renting to unauthorized immigrants or transporting them. Is there any doubt that this ID will be employed in these arenas as well?

Finally, it’s interesting that WaPo’s editors use the passport as their example rather than the Social Security card itself, what the president wants to “upgrade” to regulate employment. The irony could not be more impressive: here they are, arguing that there is not a slippery slope, that this card will only be used for “employment verification,” yet the expansion of the Social Security card to uses totally unrelated to retirement benefits is the slippery slope. It shows how government ID can, and indeed will, be used for anything the government wants.