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Post-911: A Slippery Slope?
David M. Brown

Report: Your Papers, Please
Get the special reort: YOUR PAPERS, PLEASE

In his book The Limits of Privacy, Amilai Etzioni--an enthusiast for national ID and other forms of round-the-clock surveillance--defines national ID cards as "domestic passport-like documents that citizens of many countries, including democracies, are required to have with them at all times."

Of course, the demand for "papers" is most ominously symptomatic of totalitarian societies, which seek to preview and prescribe virtually every aspect of life. Hence Etzioni's eagerness to stress the fact that democracies have also imposed such a card. The implication is that all-encompassing oversight of the individual need not be attended by all-encompassing control of the individual. While Etzioni concedes that the imposition of a national ID card does entail a "diminution of privacy and autonomy," he regards the shrinkage as warranted.

Instrument of Tyranny?

Etzioni's book was published in 1999, before the traumatic events of September 11. But even so, his proposals are more illiberal than those of many current partisans of national ID or proto-national ID card--who, in deference to American sensibilities, often stipulate that such a card would be voluntary, or, if mandatory, restricted to a particular segment of the population (travel-industry employees or resident aliens). For Etzioni, though, the right of decline-to-carry is the Achilles heel of any such card. Criticizing Joseph Eaton's proposal for a privately produced and administered ID card, Etzioni observes that criminals "will not purchase such a private ID card or will not present it when they are engaged in their illegal activities. The key missing feature is a requirement that all people in a given jurisdiction be able to identify themselves when so required by public authorities. Without this feature, the high social costs of having no universal ID cards cannot be adeq uately curtailed." Etzioni notes that those who "stand to gain by being easily and securely identified would avail themselves of voluntary cards, while those who violate the law are likely to avoid them."

Tellingly, the formulation omits a third possible category, that of people who have committed no crime, but wish to retain their privacy and freedom. (That would be you and me and other DF patrons.)

Etzioni is aware of concerns that a national ID card could become an instrument of tyranny. But, "Although ID cards can be utilized by totalitarian governments to restrict freedoms, these cards do not transform democratic societies into totalitarian ones" all by themselves, he explains. Etzioni favorably quotes Frederick Schauer, who points out how fallacious it is to assume "that the lack of an obvious stopping point along a continuum renders imprecise the point that is ultimately chosen"--as if it's just one guy or committee that would determine exactly how intrusive a national ID card would be allowed to be--in the manner in which one might stipulate the wavelength at which orange turns to red. Linguistic precision, Schauer seems to suggest, is both necessary and sufficient to prevent any further slide down the slippery slope. Etzioni swallows that contention whole, concluding that "there is no evidence or reason to assume that their implementation will set in motion a ste ady descent into ever-greater restrictions on privacy and autonomy." (With arguments like these, who needs toboggans?)

Whose Slippery Slope

One problem with arguments about stopping points on slippery slopes is that people do not even see the same slope. Measures that some would decry as the second or fourth or tenth step on an ever-steeper road to tyranny, others regard as reasonable and moderate and perfectly consonant with the free and democratic society. Alan Dershowitz assures us that a national ID card can be voluntary and need contain only "name, address, photo and print." Phyllis Schlafly considers a national ID card to be a horrible idea, indeed the "passport to a police state"...though of course it would be okay to impose something similar on all resident aliens. Etzioni wants everybody to have the card, all the time. One man's abyss is another's level ground.

Etzioni's version of the future is not fantastic, not impossible. He advocates the standard features of a full-fledged national ID card, laminated with the latest technology.

And he is correct to say that the establishment of national ID card cannot by itself engender a totalitarian regime. The card would merely be extremely helpful in establishing or maintaining such a regime, and merely enlists many of the same assumptions incorporated by the ideology of totalitarianism. But although totalitarianism requires certain cultural and political factors to be sustained--not just heaps of easily accessible personal information on everybody--it is also true that a national ID system would aspire to ever-more-comprehensive oversight of a sort that is very congenial to a repressive society, and very contradictory to the spirit of an individualistic and free society. The biometrically enhanced, database-linked national ID card would be intrusive in itself and provide the means for further unwarranted intrusions.

The decline in individualistic spirit that must precede the establishment of such a regime would make the job of the intruders easier, once that regime had arrived.

When does Big Brother become Big Brother? Etzioni may be satisfied, for example, that if the government fines an employer for failing to check an employee's "papers," this is a legitimate exercise of power over our private affairs, in light of which a national ID card may be viewed as simply expediting a very reasonable imposition. But on this view, it would be hard to specify any governmental use--or abuse--of power whatsoever that could count as a step down the slippery slope. After all, government officials always provide justification for any freedom-violating policy which they might like to impose. While Etzioni is not completely insensible to the hazards of the world he wants to make, he is too quick to downplay them.

Yet as I document, the history thus far of universal identifiers even in the U.S.--not to mention the uses and abuses of both private and public databases--is not reassuring. It does indeed provide "evidence or reason" of "descent into ever-greater restrictions on privacy and autonomy." Nor is the experience of citizens in countries that already have national ID very reassuring....

(Excerpted from "Your Papers, Please: How a National Identification Regime Would Threaten Privacy, Freedom--And Security")

David M. Brown is a freelance writer and editor. Brown helped develop the Bureaucrash anti-NID site www.iamnotanumber.org. The above article is adapted from "Your Papers, Please: How a National Identification Regime Would Threaten Privacy, Freedom--And Security," a 46-page report on attempts to impose a national ID card on Americans, and what the likely consequences would be. To obtain a copy, contact the publisher, Emergency Tips, at emergencytips@yahoo.com.


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