Wack: Real ID too great a sacrifice of individual liberty in the name of safety

You know something is likely a very bad idea when organizations as politically diverse as the ACLU and the Cato Institute are allied in their opposition.

The topic of their shared disdain is the Real ID Act of 2005, a bit of post-9/11 Congressional activity that generated controversy the day it was passed. The State of Maryland’s recent move toward fuller implementation presents an opportunity to once again scrutinize the intent and ramifications of this sweeping assault on privacy and individual liberty.


The legislation passed the Republican-controlled House and Senate and was signed by President George W. Bush on May 11, 2005, one of many post 9/11 security-related initiatives, including the creation of several new bureaucracies, like the Department of Homeland Security, Director of National Intelligence, and the National Counter Terrorism Center. Many of these efforts were necessary and appropriate given the failure to proactively respond to known terrorism threats, but even at the time, and certainly in retrospect, some may have gone to far.

Too far toward what? In democratic societies, there is always a tension between security and individual liberty. When we live in communities, we make a trade, either implicitly or explicitly, between what we want to or can do, and what the community requires to maintain civil order. In exchange for a peaceful, secure community, we agree to allow the community to infringe, more or less, on our individual liberty by imposing rules we collectively form, agree to, and abide by through our democratic institutions, like elections, the legislative process, and our court system.

When those rules are too strict or intrusive, liberty is infringed too much, and we push back. Not enough rules, and chaos erupts.

One thing Americans often overlook is the reality that fewer rules do not necessarily create more freedom, an unfortunate libertarian fantasy.

The fewer rules there are, the more freedom accrues to those with power, whether in the form of money, weapons, or brute strength. The rest suffer at the hands of those powerful enough to impose their will. The earliest forms of community rule arose to protect the weak from the strong, the minority from the majority, and the interests of everyone from the whims of the mob.

Too many rules, though, leads to the same problem. Instead of tyranny at the hands of the wealthy or strong, now it’s tyranny at the hands of the government.

The Real ID Act treads right up to, and I suspect over, the line between security and individual liberty. It was born from concerns about weaknesses in identification procedures at the state level for issuing ID cards, and how that impacted security measures at airports. So far, so good.

My concerns arise from how states collect and store documents corroborating identity, and then using the resulting ID card to restrict travel.

In this case, it’s air travel, but once in place, the door is open for using it to restrict other forms of travel: trains and buses, or any toll facility, or crossing state lines. The linkage between your identity and ability to move around is ripe for abuse.

From inception, Democrats and Republicans have fought implementation, at the Federal and State level, but still, it slowly moves forward.

Soon, you won’t be able to fly unless you supply the required documentation to the state and receive the approved ID card.

Even if that could theoretically make us safer, the infringement of privacy and freedom, and worse, the probability of abuse by the government, makes this sacrifice of liberty for security a non-starter.