The Big Deal

The idea of a federal ID has been trial-ballooned for several years now, with the public showing little enthusiasm for the idea. Nevertheless, Congress has voted favorably upon a bill that does establish such an ID, and will go into effect in about three years.

There will be grumbling, of course; some of it quite strident. But time heals all wounds, including political ones, and the majority of Americans will accept it. "After all," they will say, "what’s the big deal? Just another piece of paper to carry around." And, at least in the beginning, that’s all it will be: a slight nuisance at times, otherwise insignificant. Besides, as we will constantly be told: isn’t a little inconvenience worth it in the fight against terrorism? Isn’t an ID a small price to pay to make America safer? Well, how can you argue with that! What are you, some kind of anti-American kook?

What makes it, denials notwithstanding, a big deal is not nearly so dramatic or inflammatory as airliners crashing into skyscrapers, or people being blown up by suicide bombers. Consider human nature.

Can anyone believe that a new government bureaucracy in charge of the ID program will simply issue the ID’s — in the form of a driver’s license — and then sit back and do nothing? In theory, that would suffice. Each person with his or her own ID, with picture and relevant data encoded. Nothing more to do except show it to any officious person demanding to see it. It would be like the present driver’s license — seldom seen and given little thought.

But bureaucracy doesn’t work that way. You cannot make a name for yourself in government by simply sitting back and doing nothing. You must enlarge your power and influence. This is true of private business as well, but with the difference that the good or service produced privately is one you can accept or reject. When Uncle Sam produces an Edsel, however, you will buy it or else.

An ambitious bureaucrat in charge of federal IDs will find plenty to do. The capacity of modern computer chips is amazing: he will need to decide what data to include in your ID, but since tons of data can be stored there, why not? It will be like the modern cell-phone: making calls is almost incidental. You can take pictures, listen to music, find the temperature in Kuala Lumpur, and read your email. So your personal ID may include information about the radio stations you listen to, the magazines you subscribe to, the people that you see frequently, the phone calls you’ve made, etc. Getting this information may involve some prying and snooping, but remember: it’s part of the war on terrorism. And, ultimately, it will protect the children! You’d be a heartless fiend to oppose it.

And once the information is obtained and stored, what to do with it? Who can access it? Why, that’s enough to keep a bureaucrat busy for months. Questions of constitutionality will not be entertained, because the very idea of a federal ID is unconstitutional to begin with. Besides the Constitution is a dead letter, anyway. It certainly can’t be allowed to stand in the way of protecting our great nation, especially the children, from the likes of Osama bin Laden, or the villain de jour. On the other hand, there’s no need to alarm citizens unnecessarily, so some of the ID information, without a lot of fuss, bother, or publicity, could be incorporated into credit cards, perhaps, so that in the absence of any person duly qualified to examine your official ID, your whereabouts might be instantly determined when you use your credit card. That information is available anyway, but it takes some time for law-enforcement to obtain it. Why not instantaneous recording of your location? A camera at the cash register might, unobtrusively, of course, snap your picture. Just a precaution, you understand. Some people have been known to dye their hair, or grow a beard. Uncle should know that!

The ID, in whatever form, is merely the camel’s snout under the tent. It won’t take very long for everyone to realize that there’s no need to encumber folks with any special sort of document. Ultimately, common sense and right reason will prevail, and important ID information will be kept on a chip implanted under the skin. A lively black market might arise among surgeons willing to remove your chip, and replace it with another (not having a chip will be an offense!) but that will be made a serious felony, as will attempts to hack into the chip and change the data. Of course, administering these new laws and regulations, and enforcing them, will create thousands of new jobs; so at least a portion of the public will be heartily in favor of ID chips, just as some now enthusiastically support the income tax (especially if they pay little or nothing). Chip contractors will vie with defense contractors for federal funding.

In the end, it’s a question of timing. The personal federal ID will signal, to those of any perception, the final collapse of individual freedom in the United States — even though the collapse is gentle and fairly slow. If the government can get away with it, the sky’s the limit to the expansion of government activity. So what’s the big deal? Liberty. If that word makes you uncomfortable, or sounds old-fashioned, get right in line for one of those new IDs. You’ll love it. So will your rulers.

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.