National Identification Systems: Preface

By Carl Watner

In the weeks and months that followed September 11, 2001, Americans heard more and more about the need for national ID. Amidst these calls for increased security, Wendy McElroy suggested I examine the morality and the practicality of these programs. Would giving each person in the United States a unique number for life actually make us safer or would it simply allow governments to track us from cradle to grave? Had these suggestions for monitoring individuals ever been made before? What were the precedents – both historical and philosophical? What were the assumptions, implications, and likely outcomes of such a system? Would they make us more secure from attack or would we simply become more visible to those who wanted to tax and control us?

National Identification Systems is more than a book about national ID. It is about all forms of government enumeration, from the census of antiquity – to government naming practices, fingerprinting, social security numbers, drivers licenses – to cutting-edge, biometric technologies, such as DNA, iris scans, or subcutaneous microchips capable of allowing those in charge to know where we are twenty-four hours a day via global positioning satellites. This book looks at the “big” picture of national ID: “what it is, how it has developed, and how it might potentially change our society.” It is also about those who have chosen to resist or oppose national ID schemes – from Gandhi’s satyagraha campaign in South Africa in 1906 to those Americans who refuse to be counted or carry a government number today. These “Essays in Opposition” are intended to honor those whose consciences and principles do not allow them to “roll over” and acquiesce.

As I began to research the topic of government enumeration it became readily apparent that this was a highly ideologically-charged subject – with most people believing that some sort of government intervention was a prerequisite to modern life. In fact, several potential contributors to this book refused to allow me permission to reprint their work because they were opposed to the ideological drift of this anthology. Never before has there been a book devoted to the idea that the logical outcome of government involvement in these areas (from government birth certificates to governmental databases and surveillance) is 1984-style population control. That is why national ID systems have been called a “trademark of totalitarianism.” While Americans might be able to avoid the abuses that such systems have brought about in other countries (national ID cards always seem to facilitate genocide, as one of our chapters points out), there remains the telling point that national ID and enhanced governmental powers always go hand in hand.

As in all intellectual efforts, this book could not have been assembled without help from numerous people. Foremost to be mentioned is Claire Wolfe, whose depth of knowledge, personal contacts, and editorial assistance I found invaluable. The two books that I continually consulted during my year-long work on this anthology were Jane Caplan and John Torpey’s, Documenting Individual Identity: The Development of State Practices in the Modern World, and Simon Cole’s Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification. The Inter-Library Loan Departments at the Spartanburg County Public Library and Wofford College went far above and beyond the call of duty in helping me to locate hard-to-find materials, some of which are mentioned in Chapter 28, “For Further Reading.” I would like to thank the Center for Independent Thought and various subscribers to The Voluntaryist for their support of this project.

Readers, as you grapple with the questions presented by this book, please remember that I take responsibility for all its faults and errors. Whatever merit you find in its arguments, historical analysis, and conclusions belong to those contributors who were so generous in allowing me to use their work. I only hope that you, your children, or your grandchildren will one day offer thanks to those in the ranks of the opposition who saw fit to challenge government enumeration.

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