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Commentary

Identity Crisis


     
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In his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845), the author wrote about his escape from the South: “Any one having a white face, and being so disposed, could stop us, and subject us to examination. . . . When I get there [in Pennsylvania], I shall not be required to have a pass; I can travel without being disturbed.” After visiting post-First World War Europe, Rose Wilder Lane reflected about America: “We were not obliged, as Continental Europeans have been, to carry at all times a police card . . . bearing our pictures properly stamped and stating our names, ages, addresses, parentage, religion and occupation. In his recent memoirs, George Jonas explains how, in Nazi-occupied Hungary, Jews needed false ID papers to survive.

In France, the national ID card was created in October 1940 by Pétain’s collaborationist government. Convenience for French citizens and the war situation were the official reasons, which are strikingly similar to justifications used today. The national ID card still exists in France, but is not compulsory anymore. However, like the drivers licence or the medicare card here, it has become so convenient in everyday life that more than 90 per cent of the French have one.

The regulations of the Peoples Republic of China on Resident Identity Cards state, “These Regulations are formulated in order to prove the identity of residents, facilitate citizens social activities, maintain public order and guarantee citizens lawful rights and interests. . . . When performing its duties, the public security organ shall have the power to examine a citizen’s resident identity card, and the citizen shall not refuse to be examined.”

In the history of organized political power, interior passports have been the norm, especially for little people.

However, the traditions in Canada, England and (for freemen) the U.S. were, until quite recently, very different. The reason was not that official ID papers would be useless, but, on the contrary, that they would be too helpful for the state in monitoring and controlling citizens. The lower the cost of controlling people, the more controls will be imposed on them.

During the last two or three decades, our traditions have been under continuous attack. In the U.S., the driver's licence (together with the ubiquitous social security number) has become a de facto ID card; by standardizing it across all states, the 2005 Real ID Act is turning it into a real national ID card. Legislation creating an ID card with biometric information is now being adopted in England, with the support of the majority of the population

In Canada, minister Denis Coderre was pushing the same idea under the Liberal government. Stockwell Day, the new public security minister in the Conservative government, has cryptically put his weight behind “some kind of a biometric approach” or “an enhancement on a driver’s licence,” for, you see, it will help secure the border and make travelling more convenient for “good, law-abiding people.”

In the Feb. 21 edition of Britain’s The Guardian, George Monbiot explains how we will soon have RFIDs (radio frequency identification devices) embedded in biometric ID papers. Police will be able to scan passersby or crowds at a distance, and get a reading of individual identities and related information from central databases. Moreover, tracking ID cards from satellites may soon be feasible. Even assuming it is not compulsory to carry RFIDs, most people will find it convenient, in order to be traced if they are victims of a crime or processing at checkout counters. The more people that carry the high-tech ID cards, the more these cards will become indispensable in everyday life. Private companies will piggyback on government-issued and government-certified ID, and require it for more and more transactions. People will beg to be tagged.

In the latest issue of the academic journal Public Choice, James Buchanan, a Nobel prizewinning economist, gives a name to the root phenomenon: “parentalism.” People like to be to the state what children are to their parents. The rulers—that is, passing politicians and permanent bureaucrats—gladly oblige.


Pierre Lemieux is a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute in Oakland, California, and Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Quebec at Outaouais in Canada.






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