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Gradualism in Practice:

The Danger of Compulsory National ID

By Carl Watner

Most people have probably heard at least one of the following stories. Put a frog in a pot of boiling water and he will save himself by jumping right out. Put him in a pan of cold water, and gradually increase the heat. You will soon boil him to death. Want to catch a wild hog that won't come anywhere near you? Put a little corn out for him in the woods. Do that pretty regularly until he gets used to the smell of humans and gradually accustoms himself to eating corn. Get him to follow your trail of corn right into an enclosure and you capture him easily. What is the moral of these two stories? What has this got to do with government identification programs? What has gradualism got to do with national ID?

We can begin answering these questions by noting that at the time of the American Revolution, there was little concern for the official, civil registration of births and deaths. Even in the Constitution there is no specific mention of vital statistics other than the commissioning of the federal government to conduct a census every ten years in order to determine the apportionment of congressmen among the states. At any time prior to 1900, it would probably have been impossible for a large portion of the American populace to prove that they had ever been born or that their parents were ever married, since they had no state-issued birth or marriage certificates. Before the advent of the automobile, there was certainly no such thing as a state-issued license to drive a horse and wagon. Nonetheless, today, nearly everyone has a state-issued birth certificate, and practically everyone who drives a motor vehicle has a state-issued license extending to them the "privilege" to do so. The constitutional directive for the decennial census has been expanded to such an extent that serious consideration is now being given to assigning a federal identification number to each and every citizen and resident alien in the United States. How did we in America move from the point where few of our ancestors were concerned about even having a record of their births (much less having a public official make that record) to the point where we are ready to accept a unique government number to identify us? How were we convinced to accept government numbers when our forefathers would have bristled at the thought?1

Here were some of the steps:

1639 - Massachusetts Bay Colony ordered that births and deaths should be reported to the town clerk by parents or household owners within one month of their occurrence. Connecticut and other colonies followed suit in the succeeding years.

1790 - First national census conducted in accordance with Article I, Section 2 of the US Constitution.

1842 - Massachusetts became the first state to require collection of vital statistics (births and deaths); followed by other states between 1850 and 1900.

1903 - Massachusetts and Missouri became the first states to require drivers' licenses, though Missouri had no driver examination law until 1952.

1935 - The passage of the Social Security Act "proved to be a great stimulus" to birth certification. "Many people had never considered a birth certificate to be of any importance until old age assistance, unemployment insurance, and other ramifications of the Social Security Act demonstrated to them that it was necessary to have this official proof of their existence" in order to collect benefits.

1961 - The IRS demanded that all taxpayers provide their Social Security number when paying federal taxes.

1992 - Hospital enumeration-at-birth program (assigning newborns Social Security numbers) was begun.

Looking at this historical overview, it is easy to see how government gradualism has prevailed. Like the frog jumping out of boiling water, the American people would have completely rejected a national numbering system when the Constitution was adopted. When the first federal census was conducted in South Carolina, the enumeration was met with considerable resistance. Several heads of family in the Federal District for Charleston were indicted in 1791 for "refusing to render an account of their respective families." George Washington in a letter to Gouverneur Morris noted that many Americans held religious scruples against complying with the census officials, while others feared that the census was in some way connected with taxes, and hence refused to cooperate. However, now after nearly three hundred years of accepting some limited forms of government enumeration, a national ID system doesn't sound so strange.

Clearly, people soon get used to government involvement in their lives. Our government has always used the carrot and stick approach to gain cooperation. It threatens punishment for not complying with its laws; and it promises handouts for obeying. This was the exact method used by the government's Social Security Administration. First it promised that a social security number would never be used for identification purposes. Then it promised practically free payouts to the retiring elderly if they would only apply for a number. Then years later, the SSA and the IRS threatened all sorts of penalties and loss of privileges if one refused a number. By 1973, it was required that a social security number be furnished if one were to open a personal checking account. Later, one could not claim dependent exemptions unless one provided their social security numbers on one's 1040 tax form. Today, in some states, one cannot obtain a driver's license without providing a social security number. What will come next?

What comes next is compulsory, national ID. Whether administered at the state or the federal level, each and every person in the United States would be issued a government identification, and would be required to use it in order to participate in numerous activities. A true national identification card would necessarily be universal (if not issued to every newborn it would be issued to all children upon their reaching a certain age) and compulsory (it would become a crime, punishable by fine or imprisonment, to refuse to accept or use such a document). It would also be a violation of the law to have more than one card, to use the card of another person, or to hold a card in the name of an alias. A national ID would act as a domestic passport. In many countries around the world, where such cards actually exist, they are needed to rent an apartment, buy a home, apply for a job, pay one's utility and telephone bills, withdraw books from the library, or to access health care services. They could act as a surrogate driver's license, passport, voter registration card, hunting/fishing license, and draft card. With micro-chip technology, such a card would act as a complete medical, financial, tax, and travel dossier documenting where you have been, how you got there, and how you paid for the services you used. In conjunction with data reported to the Internal Revenue Service, it would enable the government to calculate how much you owed in taxes each year. National ID micro-chips could be accessed by all government agencies so the card could be used to verify that the holder had no delinquent taxes or child support, no overdue library books, no parking fines, no bounced checks, and no unpaid traffic violations. Micro-chips would also have the capability to be disabled from a central government office at the discretion of any government agency, "instantly rendering its holder unable to travel or function in society." In short, government ID would be a license to live issued by the government. No longer would life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness be a natural, inalienable right.

If one were a conspiracy theorist, one could claim that even before the passage of the Social Security Act plans were being laid to enslave the American population by way of numbering them. While this might be true, a more reasonable explanation is found by examining the nature of government. Government, as George Washington noted is "force." It tolerates no competition within its domains: it is the sole monopolizer of police, courts, and defense services AND it collects it revenues by threatening confiscation of property or imprisonment of person if one refuses to pay its levies. As Lord Acton observed "power corrupts." When government has the power to control us, it will use every strategy at its disposal to increase the amount of taxes assessed and the ease by which they are collected. What could make this process easier than a numbering scheme for all its citizens?

Is it too late to resist? In one sense, yes. It is always easier to resist at the beginnings. It is also easier to refuse to cooperate if one does not accept the basic premise adopted by one's opponent. In the case of the frog, the frog would have to reject being placed in the pot of water, whether it was hot or cold. (Why else would he be placed there - other than to cook him?) The hog would have to be smart enough to refuse the bait. By rejecting the free gift of corn, the hog would have prevented himself gradually being led down the trail to capture. The American people, by accepting the principle that governments should be responsible for the census and vital statistics, have been easily led down the trail to national ID.

Although it might be hard to imagine how this assumption of government enumeration power could have been averted, there have been at least two partially successful campaigns against national ID. In the early 1900s, Mahatma Gandhi led a resistance movement against the registration of Indians in the South African Transvaal. An Englishman who lived there called the registration "the fastening of the dog's collar" around the neck of the Indians. At a meeting in late 1906, Gandhi called the government's bill a violation of basic civil rights and urged the entire Indian community in the Transvaal to openly resist complying with such a law. Thus was born the idea of Satyagraha (nonviolent resistance to unjust governmental demands), which was successfully implemented in both the Transvaal and during the Indian movement for independence from Great Britain after World War II. Forty years later, a similar, massive public protest arose in Australia when the government proposed a national ID card for all Australians.

Now that Americans are faced with a similar challenge, there are a few general observations that we ought to remember:

In a society where the people have been issued a national ID card by their government, they - the people - are no longer free because their permission to live, work, and play comes from the government.

The logical outcome of government involvement in enumeration is the type of population control described by the authors of such fictional disutopias, as Brave New World and 1984. This is why national ID systems have been described as "a trademark of totalitarianism."

From the Biblical story of King David (who caused a plague by counting his people), to the Roman censors who counted Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem, to today's call for national ID, the essential purpose behind government data-gathering has always been the same: to enhance government's control over its subject population. Government identification programs - whether the censuses of antiquity, or based upon a birth certificate, a Social Security card, a driver's license, a smart card (the programmable micro-chip), or even an implanted micro-chip or some other form of biometric recognition - are all based upon the same principle: that government has the right and necessity to track, monitor, and control the people and property within its geographic jurisdiction. Thus the primary danger of implementing a national ID system in the United States is that it delivers totalitarian power to the federal government. As political scientist, Theodore Lowi, wrote in 1981,

Every action and every agency of contemporary government ... contribute to the fulfillment of its fundamental purpose, which is to maintain conquest. Conquest manifests itself in various forms of control, but in all those forms it is the common factor tying together into one system the behavior of courts and cops, sanitation workers and senators, bureaucrats and technocrats, attorney generals, pressure groups and presidents.

Although Lowi did not include them, we might add government health departments (that issue birth certificates), government motor vehicle administrations (that issue drivers' licenses), the Immigration and Naturalization Service (which is responsible for keeping track of aliens within the United States), and the Office of Homeland Security (which is responsible for protecting us from terrorists). If and when it comes, a national ID program will fit hand in glove with Lowi's description of the "fundamental purpose" of government "which is to maintain conquest."

In making their ultimate decision whether to accept or reject national ID, Americans need to remember two things:

First, national ID and enhanced governmental powers always go hand in hand.

Second, for thousand of years, people have lived, died, and prospered without government ID. If they could do it, we certainly can. Sure, it is necessary that we have food, shelter, and clothing but that doesn't mean that our government must compulsorily supply us with these things any more than it needs to furnish each of us with a national ID number.

1 I might also add, that they probably would have never accepted the Constitution if they had known their descendants would be paying as many taxes (both in variety and amount) as we do.