Why I Oppose Government Enumeration

By Carl Watner

[Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared as Chapter 17 in NATIONAL IDENTIFICATION SYSTEMS, an anthology edited by Carl Watner with Wendy McElroy, published in 2004 by McFarland & Company, Jefferson, NC. ISBN 0-7864-1595-9.]

… as I was cold and wet I sat down at a good fire in the bar room to dry my great coat and saddlebags. … There presently came in, one after another, half a dozen … substantial yeomen of the neighborhood, who sitting down to the fire after lighting their pipes, began a lively conversation upon politics [circa 1773]. As I believed I was unknown to all of them, I sat in total silence to hear them. One said, “The people of Boston are distracted.” Another answered, “No wonder the people of Boston are distracted; oppression will make wise men mad.” A third said, “What would you say if a fellow should come to your house and tell you he was come to take a list of your cattle that Parliament might tax them for you for so much a head? And how should you feel if he should go out and break open your barn, to take down your oxen, cows, horses, and sheep?” “What should I say,” replied the first, “I would knock him in the head.” “Well,” said a fourth, “if Parliament can take away Mr. Hancock’s wharf and Mr. Row’s wharf, they can take away your barn and my house.” After much more reasoning in this style, a fifth who had as yet been silent, broke out, “Well it is high time for us to rebel. We must rebel some time or other: and We had better rebel now than at any time to come: if we put it off for ten or twenty years, and let them go on as they have begun, they will get a strong party among us, and plague us a great deal more than they can now. As yet they have but a small party on their side.”
– John Adams, “Old Family Letters,” p. 140 cited in David McCullough, JOHN ADAMS (New York: Simon & Schuster), 2001, pp. 74-75.

The purpose of this essay is to question the assumption that we need a government program that produces national ID (and by implication observe that resistance should be based on principle not pragmatism). From the Bible story of King David (who caused a plague by counting his people), to the Roman censors who counted Joseph, Mary and Jesus in Bethlehem, to Parliament’s attempt to list colonial cattle, to today’s call for national identification cards the essential purpose behind government data gathering has always been the same: to enhance government’s control over its subject population. The only difference between “breaking down barn doors” to count your animals, or forcibly implanting their offspring or our newborn children with a subdermal micro-chip is the advance of technology. Government identification programs, whether they are based upon a birth certificate, a wallet card (like the Social Security card), a smart card (with a programmable microchip), an implanted micro-chip, or some other form of biometric recognition are all based upon the same principle: that the government has the right and necessity to track, monitor, and control the people and property within its geographic boundaries.(1) As one commentator has pointed out, “there is no difference in principle between being forced to carry a microchip in a plastic card in your wallet or in a little pellet in your arm.”(2) The question is not whether one technology is better or worse than another; the question is whether we endorse the argument that some sort of government enumeration is necessary.

Whether what we call “national ID” would be administered at the state or federal level, each and every person in the United States would be issued a government identification, and would be required to use it in order to participate in numerous activities. A true national identification card would necessarily be universal (if not issued to every newborn it would be issued to children upon reaching a certain age) and compulsory (it would become a crime, punishable by fine or imprisonment, to refuse to accept or use such a document). It would also be a violation of the law to have more than one card, to use the card of another person, or to hold a card in the name of an alias. In short, a national ID would act as a domestic passport. In many countries around the world, where such cards actually exist, they are needed to rent an apartment, to buy a house, apply for a job, pay one’s utility and telephone bills, withdraw books from the library, or to access health care services. They could act as a surrogate drivers license, passport, voter registration card, and hunting/fishing license.(3) With micro-chip technology, such a card would act as a complete medical, financial, tax, and travel dossier, documenting where you have been, how you got there, and how you paid for the services you purchased. In conjunction with other income data reported to the Internal Revenue Service, it could be used to generate an income tax return for you every year. The chips could be linked “directly to all government agencies so the card could be used to verifv that the holder has no delinquencies on taxes or child support,” no overdue library books, no parking fines, no bounced checks, and no unpaid traffic violations. They would also “have the capability to be disabled from a central location at the discretion of any government agency, instantly rendering its holder unable to travel or function in society.”(4) In short, government identification would he a “license to live,” based on the idea that “living is a government privilege, not a right.”(5) It would be an attack on every person’s right to exist upon the surface of the earth without being seized by the authorities for violating the laws governing personal identification.

Most readers picking this book up for the first time would want to know if I am opposed to all government enumeration. “Don’t censuses and other government surveys, etc., serve many useful social purposes? Aren’t the various forms of government data gathering simply like other tools and technologies that are capable of doing both good and harm?” the reader might ask. Nonetheless, “Yes,” I am really opposed to all forms of government enumeration. My objection to government enumeration and data gathering is not to the collection and registration of information per se, but rather to the coercive nature of the institution that gathers it. If some private organization chooses to solicit information from me, I may or may not respond. However, I will suffer no criminal penalties if I refuse to cooperate. When the State demands we conform to its identification procedures or collects information about us and our affairs, there are usually fines, penalties, or imprisonment for those who do not cooperate.

There is a definite ethical question involved in justifying government data gathering. Is it morally proper to coerce those who refuse to participate in enumeration programs or provide information demanded by the government? Do the ends justify the means? I don’t necessarily object to the ends (such as improved public health or security) but I do object to the means, and question whether improper means can bring about beneficial ends for everybody.(6) In many countries if one steadfastly refuses to cooperate (e.g., in refusing to register the birth of one’s children with the government, or in refusing to carry a government ID card), one will be arrested; and if one resists arrest, one will be ultimately dragged off to jail. Or if one acts in self-defense to protect one’s self from arrest one will be killed for resisting an officer of the law. By using violence or the threat of violence against the non-cooperator, governments are ultimately violating the moral commandment not to kill or molest peaceful people.

Many times throughout history, government collection of seemingly innocent data (such as tribal or ethnic or racial affiliation) has resulted in horrible and deplorable genocide. The uses (and the abuses which are ultimately inherent in government administration) of government information in identifying and locating the civilian victims of the Nazis during World War II, or of the blacks in South Africa, or of the Tutsis in Rwanda, would, by themselves, be reason enough to question and then demand the cessation of government enumeration. The numbering and internment in the United States of over 100,000 American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II should be sufficient to prove my point. But even if it could be proven that government data collection benefits society in other ways (thus using the ends to justify the means), I would still be opposed because government necessarily has to act coercively in the manner in which it collects such information. I believe this to be wrong from an ethical perspective, and believe it sets the stage for the sorts of human right abuses that we have experienced under every species of government, whether democratic or totalitarian. As Robert Nisbet once noted, “With all respect to differences among types of government, there is not, in strict theory, any difference between the powers available to the democratic and to the totalitarian State.”(8)

The best example of a voluntary ID system that I can offer is that presented by the credit card companies, such as Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express. These companies have managed “to make their cards acceptable in all civilized countries.”(9) Although they each might like to attain a coercive monopoly over the credit card market, unlike national governments, none of these organizations has the right to compel people to use their credit cards. Compare credit cards to national identification cards: no one is forced to have a credit card; some people may have more than one credit card from the same company, or even have multiple credit cards from different companies. Most people pay their bills because they want to maintain their credit rating and want to take advantage of the benefits and conveniences derived from using credit cards. But no one is put in jail: neither those who do not use credit cards, nor those merchants who refuse to accept credit cards in their businesses. In short, the absence of coercion and the existence of a “variety of legal choices does not mean chaos.” As the ruminations at the end of my essay on the history of the state birth certificate, and the discussion in Sunni Maravillosa’s essay, “ID Without Big Brother,” both point out, there are many noninvasive methods which might be used to identify people in the absence of a government monopoly.

No one can really know for sure whether the September 11th terrorist attacks would have been prevented by the existence of a national ID card, or if ways could have been found to circumvent the system. Beside the moral question, there are all sorts of pragmatic problems associated with the issuance of a national ID card. Fake identity documents are to be found in every country of the world.(10) If cards were issued to some 280 million Americans in the course of a year, that means that more than a million cards would have to be issued every work day, or at least 125,000 per hour. And more importantly, what sort of document will a citizen have to show to secure such a card? There is still no fool-proof system in existence in the United States affirming legitimate birth certificates or other proofs of identity. If you question this, then how did some 3000 dead people vote in one Florida county in the 2000 Presidential election, or why do statistics show there are many millions more drivers licenses issued nation-wide than there are adults who drive? The point is there are extreme problems with the integrity of data in existing systems, so how will a new system function effectively?(11) Certainly, national ID programs in such countries as Spain, France, and Italy have not stopped terrorists, and even if it could somehow be proved that a national ID program w6uld have prevented the September 11th hijackings, the point is that natioral ID is not really an issue about technology or its practical implementation.(12)

The decision whether or not to adopt national I.D. is really a moral and philosophical issue that we have to face: do our rights emanate from the State or do individual rights inhere in the individual? Is everyone “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” as the Declaration of Independence puts it, or do we need to be registered and identified by government in order to be assured that we receive whatever privileges and benefits it (the government) grants us? While there certainly are dangers living in a free world, the principle behind national ID leads straight to a totalitarian society. With national I.D. there is no logical stopping point short of totalitarian control. Do we want to embrace that prospect? As “Harvey Silverglate, a criminal defense lawyer in Boston who specializes in civil liberties issues,” put it

Individuals, groups, gangs— the damage that they have done pales in significance when compared to the damage done by governments out of control. There is no example of a privately caused Holocaust in history…. I would prefer to live in a world where governments are more circumscribed than in a world that gives governments enormous, unlimited powers [such as a national I.D. program] to keep private terrorism circumscribed. I would rather live with a certain amount of private terrorism than with government totalitarianism.(13)

The evidence in this book lends credence to the conclusion that national ID cards are a “trademark of totalitarianism” and that no totalitarian government operates without such a system.(14)


1. My references to “national ID cards,” government enumeration, government identification, and government data gathering are all-inclusive. They refer to both “card-type” and “card-less” governmental systems, past, present, or future which track, identify, and monitor people within the space boundaries which governments monopolize. It is even possible that we might have a card-less system given the advance of biometrics technology. Using biometric features, such as iris-scan, voice recognition, and/or fingerprints each person’s features could be fed into a database and identification verified by scanners (thus obviating the need for each person to carry around their own I.D. card). Another card-less possibility would make use of the ability of surveilance cameras to match faces of people with centrally-stored digital images.
2. Peter Lalonde and Paul Lalonde, Racing Toward the Mark of the Beast (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 1994), p. 18, quoting Martin Anderson from The Washington Times, October 13, 1993.
3. Ching-Yi Liu, “How Smart Is the IC Card?: The Proposed National Smart Card …,” paragraph 6. ID cards are already used for these purposes in Taiwan and Singapore.
4. This point was made in a forwarded e-mail message of March 9, 2002 from John Utley [jbutley@earthlink.net].
5. See Robert Ellis Smith’s monograph, “A National ID Card: A License to Live,” Providence: Privacy Journal, 2002, p. 44., footnote 1. Fred Woodworth of The Match in Tucson, also developed this theme in personal correspondence (December 28, 2001) with the author. Also see Duncan Frissell, “What’s Our National Identity?” The Sierra Times, December 6, 2001.
6. See Murray N. Rothbard, “Toward a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics,” in Mary Sennholz, editor, On Freedom and Free Enterprise (New York: D. Van Nostrand Company, 1956), pp. 224-262. See the discussion of the unanimity principle and “The Role of the State,” pp. 244-253 (about 1/5 the way down).
7. On the numbering of Japanese-Americans see Mine Okilbo, Citizen 13660 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1946). Ms. Okuho’s family number and internment number was 13660. In the second printing (1989) of the reprint edition of 1983, see her drawings and commentary on pages 19 and 22. In Maisie and Richard Conrat, Executive Order 9066: The Internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans (Los Angeles: California Hstorical Society, 1972), see the photos of numbering tags on the frontispiece and page 50. In Lawson Fusao Inada (editor), Only What They Could Carry: The Japanese American Internment Experience (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2000) see the photo of Hiro Niwa’s evacuation tag # 13664, at p. 57.
8. Robert. Nisbet, “The State” in D. J. Enright, editor, Fair of Speech (Oxford: Oxford University Press; 1985), pp. 185-202 at p. 186.
9. See Edward Stringham, “Market Chosen Law,” 14 Journal of Libertarian Studies (Winter 1998-1999), pp. 53-77 at pp. 62-63.
10. See the interesting article by Kitty Oviedo, “Only We Can Make Ourselves Safe: Personal Protection, Not Government Protection,” The Voluntaryist whole number 117 (pdf) (2nd Quarter 2003), p. 8, in which this observation is made.
11. “Technology Problems with the National ID Card” were raised by Jason Kosorec of Eaglecheck, Ltd., Cleveland, 0H, in personal e-mail of February 18, 2002.
12. See Julia Scheeres, “ID Cards Are De Rigueur Worldwide,”, paragraph 14.
13. Josh Gewolb, Assistant to Harvey Silverglate, approved use of this quote in an e-mail of April 10, 2002, to the author. The original version of this quote appears in Simson Garfinkel, Database Nation (Sebastopol: O’Reilly & Associates, 2000), at p. 239.
14. For the expression “trademark of totalitarianism,” see Congressman Ron Paul, “Statement for the Government Reform Committee Hearing on National ID Card Proposals,” November 16, 2001. For the assertion that “no totalitarian government operates without such a system” of ID see the 1980 reference to Analise Anderson, by Annie I. Anton, “National Identification Cards,” PUBP 8100s— Information Policy, December. 17, 1990, originally available at http://www.cc.gatech.edu/computing/SW_Eng/people/Phd/id.html, next to last paragraph of Sec. IV, Summary.

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