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An American debate

There’s an interesting debate going on at Megan McArdle’s blog where she copies a post made by ‘Contributor A’

Nick Kristof says that a national ID, in the form of a beefed-up standard driver’s license, would add security without sacrificing much or any real liberty. (He doesn’t propose forcing people to carry it at all times, like some countries do.) Is he wrong on the second count, that the loss of liberty is essentially negligible?

Please don’t answer

– Biometrics don’t work. We’re assuming for the sake of argument that the technology can be made to work.

– It won’t add that much security. Since any security gain is good, I’m for anything that adds any security at all at an acceptable cost.

– It would be expensive – again, if there’s a measurable, even if modest, security gain, we’re assuming it’s worth quite a lot in dollar terms.

– It will infringe your right to be invisible. You don’t currently really have the right to be invisible. We’re assuming you’re a normal American who pays taxes, has a social-security number, answers the census, carries a driver’s license and has a credit-rating. Those few who have none of these things can keep that right–they just may not marry, drive, fly, travel abroad, work for pay or draw any government benefit whatsoever.

– You don’t like it in theory because government is bad. I want concrete examples of how a significant number of Americans could lose concrete rights.

– Ben Franklin once said “Those who would sacrifice liberty…” Yes, we know. I want an argument, not an aphorism.

There’s nearly 50 comments, many of them quite interesting. There was a lovely rebuttal by commenter Spec Bowers:

I have strong principled objections, but that’s not what you are asking for. Here’s a pragmatic objection: What if you misplace or lose your ID? Think about how long it takes today to get a replacement driver’s license or passport. Imagine a future where you are requested several times a day to produce your ID. How miserable might your life be if you couldn’t produce it?

Quite so.

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1 comment to An American debate

  • Guy Herbert

    I’d take issue with “any security gain is good”. At best that’s a tautology, but It rather depends what you mean by ‘security’.

    Those things that are proffered as ‘security measures’ generally have in common only that they guarantee a decrease in individual liberty. If you really think security and liberty are necessarily at odds, then the argument can be put more clearly–if somewhat less persuasively–the other way round, without the weasel-word “security”: “any decrease in freedom is good”.

    Unless you consider that security and liberty are direct converses, and decreasing liberty always increases security by definition, then you have to say what is improved by a “security” measure, and how, before we can begin to consider whether it is one. Simply labelling something a matter of security doesn’t magically make it good if it would be bad done for another purpose.