No War for Big Brother


Stephen Moore

Tne historical lesson of wartime is that government grabs new powers that it could never secure during times of peace. War has been an engine of government growth and invasiveness because the state very rarely gives back the freedoms it has usurped during the time of crisis. In fact, in his famous and brilliant book Crisis and Leviathan, historian Robert Higgs provides dozens of examples of how government has nearly doubled in size after every major war.

The new war on terrorism is especially frightening in this regard. Obviously, in the wake of the heinous events of September 11th, everyone wants the government to take extra prudent security measures to prevent the recurrence of these murderous acts. But almost every new security step that the government has taken in the last several weeks will do little to avoid terrorism, but will do a lot to place new burdens on the rest of us. The examples are mounting up: ending curbside check in at airports, not allowing e-ticket holders to go straight to the airport gate, requiring motorists to wait in lines for hours to get into Manhattan, creating five and six hour waits at the border for truckers to bring their cargo into the country, shutting down Reagan National Airport (which will probably be opening by week’s end).

One really bad idea that scares me is the rush to institute a national ID card. The idea is to require every American to carry a secure identification card that would include a photograph and some biometric identifier, such as a fingerprint. These kinds of internal passports were the hallmark of totalitarian nations and other police states. Almost every national ID card proposal would include a national computer database that would or could contain all sorts of information about you and me. Police, employers, school officials, etc. would phone into this database to verify our citizenship and records. I have suggested that the government use the easy to remember number: 1-800-BIG-BROTHER.

With a small microchip on the card, the government could storehouse every conceivable piece of data about our private lives on the card: extensive health and education records, our job histories, our past residences, information about whether we own a gun and how many, perhaps income and IRS data, etc. It is also interesting that every time a big government liberal suggests some new expansive governmental power, it is often linked to setting up a national ID card. For example, gun-control fanatics have always lusted after the idea of a national registry of gun ownership in America — which would, of course, facilitate rounding up the guns if the government ever tried to disarm citizens.

Conservatives should never forget that the last major politician who called for national identifier card was none other than Hillary Clinton when she wanted to nationalize the health-care system in America. If we already had a national ID card to “fight terrorism,” this would only make Hillary’s socialistic dream all the more achievable.

We have seen time and again throughout history that when the government gathers information about us, it often uses that data for illegal and unconstitutional purposes. The IRS just a few years ago admitted, for example, that the “confidential” IRS records of thousands of Americans were invaded by snooping IRS agents. The government used supposedly confidential Census Bureau information to track down Japanese Americans during the internment during World War II.

I confess here a strong libertarian bias. Call me a natural skeptic, but I refuse to believe that an ID card system would only be used by government officials for legitimate purposes. The idea of a national id card system with another Janet Reno in the Justice Department is frankly very frightening. My belief is that the less the government knows about me the better. And I’m no terrorist; nor am I an illegal immigrant.

Here’s the clinching argument against the id-card scheme: It won’t work. The objective of the ID card is to keep out terrorists and to reduce illegal immigration. But terrorists can come to the United States in any one of dozens of ways legally. They can come as tourists, students, legal immigrants, diplomats, and on and on. A national ID card scheme would have done nothing to deter the September 11 calamity. These terrorists were here in the country legally. For those foreigners who do enter illegally, falsified documents are available quickly and at a low cost. Any design of a card the government can come up with, counterfeiters can easily copy. You can obtain half decent forgeries of drivers licenses and birth certificates for less than $200 at the border in California. A more secure system might double that price, which could potentially deter some poor Mexican agriculture workers from trekking across the border illegally, but a $500 “fee” to obtain false paperwork would hardly be a deterrent against well financed militant terrorists who plan multi-billion dollar operations.

We can defeat terrorism — by defunding the murderers and by systematically tracking their operations down. We don’t have to forfeit fundamental freedoms and civil liberties to the agents of government. After all, we love America because it is the freest land in the world. It is our freedoms and our wealth that make the terrorist hate us so much, and that we have set out to protect. If we do decide, one by one to voluntarily surrender our bundle of rights, I believe we will have allowed the terrorists to achieve a great victory over the American way of life.


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

NRO Polls on LockerDome

Subscribe to National Review