Gradualism in Practice:
The Danger of Compulsory
By Carl Watner
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
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
were some of the steps:
- 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.
- First national census conducted in accordance with Article I, Section
2 of the US Constitution.
- Massachusetts became the first state to require collection of vital
statistics (births and deaths); followed by other states between 1850
- Massachusetts and Missouri became the first states to require drivers'
licenses, though Missouri had no driver examination law until 1952.
- 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.
- The IRS demanded that all taxpayers provide their Social Security
number when paying federal taxes.
- Hospital enumeration-at-birth program (assigning newborns Social Security
numbers) was begun.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
that Americans are faced with a similar challenge, there are a few general
observations that we ought to remember:
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.
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."
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,
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.
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."
making their ultimate decision whether to accept or reject national
ID, Americans need to remember two things:
national ID and enhanced governmental powers always go hand in
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.