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A Mess of Pottage


More than 20 years ago I spent a college year studying in Paris. At a dinner one evening, a French acquaintance showed his "carte d'identite" -- the identity card that French law requires all French citizens to carry. He explained that a police officer could stop him at any time to check for this card. Failure to have it in his possession made him a lawbreaker.

I remember thinking at the time that despite France's revolutionary past, it wasn't really a free country in the same sense as the United States. Perhaps the most important everyday significance of freedom is simply the knowledge that if you're minding your own business and commiting no crimes or infractions, you can assume that the agents of state power have no presumptive right to interfere with your actions. If you're stopped, questioned and detained by the police when they have no probable cause for doing so, you have a grievance.

The identity-card requirement changes all of that. Once the state institutes such a regime, the police can stop anyone, anywhere, any time, simply to examine one's identity papers. That always struck me as one of the more chilling realities of life under the totalitarian regimes, whether of the right or the left. People had no right to assume that they would be left alone.

These feelings probably explain why I have always had a viscerally negative reaction when someone suggests issuing identity cards to all American citizens. Bill Clinton raised the idea again the other day, in the context of his proposals to nationalize the health-care industry. Apparently, identity cards would also be a useful step in the effort to stem illegal immigration. I'm sure the law-enforcement people could make a case for identity cards as a positive step in their efforts against crime in general.

Ordinarily, I'm against making a policeman's job tougher. But in a society that values freedom, law and order, logic should have natural limits. I'm sure it would be easier to be a policeman or a government bureaucrat in a society where everyone is identified, classified and subject to arrest at any time. But it would be a lot harder to be free.

Of course, it's all just a "trade-off" isn't it? We want universal health care? Fewer illegal immigrants? More effective policing on our streets? Well, something has to be sacrificed. Unfortunately, that something always seems to be some aspect of our freedom. Given all the taxes, licenses and regulations that permeate our lives, maybe we've already surrendered all but the illusory feeling of freedom anyway. An identity-card system would simply remove the illusion.

Actually, I don't think things are that bad yet. But we're getting there. We can't create a society in which government takes care of everything we want without granting government the right and the means to take an interest in everything we do. Bill Clinton's ID card proposal simply makes that fact explicit.

I can't imagine that the people who live in a society where such "trade-offs" prevail will have anything but contempt for themselves. Like Esau in the Bible story, we will have sold our birthright for a mess of pottage. After all, despite all the wonderful promises, past experience suggests that health-care reforms will make health care for most people more expensive and less effective. The law-enforcement initiatives will make policing more expensive.

We'll pay more. We'll get less. And we'll be left with an ID card system that increases government control while diminishing our everyday sense of freedom.

Alan L. Keyes is a former Republican candidate for U.S. Senate.

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