Politics & Policy

Discard This Idea

A national I.D. doesn't make sense.

Even before the July 7 terrorist attacks in London, the British government was well on its way to issuing national identification cards to its citizens. A bombing spree that has left several dozen people dead will do nothing but increase momentum for the legislation that already has cleared an important parliamentary hurdle.

But does it make sense? Or, perhaps more significantly here in the United States, would such a scheme make sense for us?

Unfortunately, the answer is no–national I.D. cards would be incredibly expensive, probably wouldn’t work, and would aggravate millions of law-abiding Americans.

Prime Minister Tony Blair thinks that his country’s national I.D. system will cost about six billion pounds, or roughly $11 billion. The United States has about five times as many people as the United Kingdom, so it is not unreasonable to believe that it would cost about five times as much to do something similar here. These are just estimates, of course. Given that so few government programs actually come in under budget, we should treat this figure of $55 billion as a floor rather than a ceiling.

That may be a small price to pay if it means avoiding even a single terrorist catastrophe. But there’s no guarantee that this would be the case. For one thing, we would still admit millions of foreigners into the country each year–most of them coming legally on business or for tourism. Millions more come illegally by sneaking across the southern border or staying illegally after their visas expire. The lawful visitors must present passports. The illegal ones usually present nothing. The bottom line is that no $55-billion scheme directed at Americans will prevent people without national I.D. cards from gaining admission to the United States and wandering around freely once they’re here. Planting agents in the country will be the least of al Qaeda’s worries. And, of course, it’s entirely possible that future terrorism will be homegrown–i.e., committed by radicals who have been born or raised within sight of the fruited plans. They might pursue their horrible plans with I.D. cards in their hip pockets.

Prior to 9/11, the biggest advocates of national I.D. cards were people concerned about illegal immigration. To some extent, they still are–and they make the perfectly rational point that because so many illegal aliens come to the United States in pursuit of work, it makes sense to enforce immigration laws not only at the border but also at the workplace. This is why you fill out those I-9 forms whenever you start a job: to prove you aren’t an illegal alien. This strategy of workplace enforcement, however, has done almost nothing to control illegal immigration. We’ve been filling out I-9 forms for almost 20 years, and illegal immigration has increased rather than decreased. That’s because immigrants in search of jobs have an easier time getting fake identification than college students in search of beer. Producing them is a cottage industry in many of their communities. Besides, a lot of employers who wouldn’t sell a six-pack to an 18-year-old have fewer scruples about the IDs of job applicants willing to work the night shift–or mow lawns, or build houses, or bus tables.

So what if we improved our system of workplace enforcement? This was a common suggestion a decade ago, when it became clear that delegating the responsibility of immigration control to employers was a spectacular flop. There was talk of setting up a “national worker registry.” Congress funded pilot programs. Supporters avoided all mention of national I.D. cards, but these would have been necessary to give the system any chance of success. The proposals ultimately went nowhere because of their high cost, nagging concerns about whether they would actually prevent illegal aliens from finding jobs, and skepticism from employers who realized that a “national worker registry” meant they would have to seek the federal government’s permission every time they wanted to hire somebody. (Ten years ago, Stephen Moore and I wrote a paper on this for the Cato Institute.)

Here was a poster child for Big Government–and it wasn’t hard to imagine the whole thing from biggering and biggering and biggering (as Dr. Seuss once wrote) into a nightmare for those who think the public sector is large enough already. Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein of California talked about making everybody submit to retina scans. There were additional murmurings about expanding the registry into a system that investigates people who want to buy guns, packs more muscle into IRS audits, and allows welfare recipients to collect their checks at ATM machines. (This last suggestion was one of Al Gore’s brain droppings.) And don’t forget the prop President Clinton held up in a 1993 speech to the country, when he was trying to sell his national health-care plan: a red, white, and blue “health security card.”

Given all this, it’s hard to see a system of national identification as anything but a midwife for so much of what conservatives oppose. Preventing terrorism is monumentally important, of course, and I might shed my libertarian objections to national I.D. cards if I thought they would make us safer. But I’m convinced that they would do little besides raise the cost of government, burden businesses with another unfunded mandate, and exasperate just about everybody–except the illegal aliens and terrorists they’re supposed to frustrate.

John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the co-author, most recently, of Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.


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