October 5, 2001


National ID Card: A Very Scary Idea

By Raymond J. Keating
Chief Economist
Small Business Survival Committee

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, most of us realized that our lives would change considerably on so many levels. That, of course, includes added domestic security measures, and a wartime response in terms of our military and intelligence capabilities.

However, no matter the situation, there is always somebody who wants to go way too far in terms of stomping on individual liberty. For example, SiliconValley.com reported this past Saturday that Oracle Chairman and CEO Larry Ellison called for the creation of a national identification card system, while also offering to donate the necessary software for free. On September 25, I caught Sun Microsystems boss Scott McNealy on CNBC also mentioning a national ID card, that naturally would use Sun's Java script. McNealy declared, "That's not a bad thing."

Interestingly, the computer revolution we have experienced in recent decades has been a liberating and empowering experience for the individual, contrary to the dire Orwellian predictions presented by those who feared that increasing computer power would somehow enable the government to diminish individual freedom. Indeed, this fear has persisted, as illustrated in the 1998 film "Enemy of the State" starring Will Smith and Gene Hackman.

Well, now we hear two leading computer executives basically arguing for Big Brother in the name of airline safety. Ellison was quoted in the SiliconValley.com article as declaring: "We need a national ID card with our photograph and thumbprint digitized and embedded in the ID card."

Does Ellison have concerns over privacy? Apparently not, as he noted: "Well, this privacy you're concerned about is largely an illusion. All you have to give up is your illusions, not any of your privacy."

I asked Matthew Carolan, a friend and colleague of mine who also is the online news editor for Interactive Week (www.interactiveweek. com), an Internet and computer publication, what he thought about a national ID system and the suggestions made by Ellison and McNealy. Carolan observed: "I believe both men have expressed skepticism about personal privacy before. But, nevertheless I think they are coming across as a little opportunistic at a time of grave national importance."

Carolan added: "British Prime Minister Tony Blair has already rejected the idea of an ID card to be produced on demand for law enforcement, likening it to Nazis demanding to see one's papers. Yet, if it is not a mandatory thing, with the threat of punishment behind it for not carrying it, what good can it do? I don't think we'll see a national ID card in the near future. Right now a lot of people are saying a lot of crazy things."

Indeed, when I first read about and heard the comments from Ellison and McNealy, I immediately thought of a White House moment during President Reagan's Administration as described by Reagan's chief domestic and economic policy adviser Martin Anderson in his fine book "Revolution." Anderson explained how an ad hoc policy group set up to work on immigration policy met beyond the purview of the president's cabinet. Anderson noted: "The influence of the entrenched professional bureaucracy was enhanced and soon the draft recommendations for the task force lost any flavor of Reagan ideology."

The recommendations made at a July 16, 1981, cabinet meeting included a national identification card, as Anderson noted, "similar to the internal passports used by the Soviet Union." He continued a bit later: "Such a card is an indispensable tool of a totalitarian state. Without a national identification system, it is very difficult for a small number of people to control a large society. With one, it is much easier."

At the cabinet meeting, Anderson tells how then-Attorney General William French Smith made the case for an ID card system, and when Reagan looked around for questions and comments, none were forthcoming. So, Anderson broke protocol by asking to be heard in a Cabinet meeting, and made his point dramatically: "I would like to suggest another way that I think is a lot better. It's a lot cheaper. It can't be counterfeited. It's very lightweight, and impossible to lose. It's even waterproof. All we have to do is tattoo an identification number on the inside of everybody's arm."

Several gasps were heard, and Reagan then offered a joke that made it clear that a national ID card was not an option.

Overly dramatic, you ask? Think and read about history, and you'll quickly understand that it is anything but.

Especially in this time of crisis and war, I am the first to argue that we need stepped up internal security, a strong national defense, and a formidable intelligence operation. However, a national ID card system should unthinkable to all that embrace and value individual freedom.

Raymond J. Keating is chief economist for the Small Business Survival Committee, and co-author of U.S. by the Numbers: Figuring What's Left, Right, and Wrong with America State by State (Capital Books, 2000).

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