Blogger Kevin Drum
While reading up on the current Senate plan for “immigration reform” and a national ID card, I stumbled upon a post at Mother Jones from January of last year called “The Friendly Future of a National ID Card.” The arguments offered by blogger Kevin Drum are quite weak to say the least, and I caught myself wondering if he was the victim of a hacker hell-bent on setting himself up to knock down a straw-man. They do, however, serve to illustrate some important points about national ID and nationalism generally.
Drum begins by quoting, approvingly, another blogger who writes as follows:
I live in Singapore and all citizens are required to have an Identity Card. (IC) The IC is very useful. It doubles as a library card, it serves as identification when I apply for overseas visas, or want to open a bank account etc. Someone’s IC also allows me to identify the other party if I get into an accident (i.e. who to pay or who to bill for damages etc etc). At this level, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with it. So, what are the problems with having a mandatory IC policy?
That’s right, citizen: all the Founders’ warnings about the need to check government’s potential for tyranny can be casually dismissed in the name of removing the pesky inconvenience of carrying around a localized library card. Forget the timeless warnings about freedom and security – trading our sacred liberty for mere convenience is all the rage these days. What we would do without enlightened bloggers like Drum to relieve us of George Washington’s anachronistic prejudices, the Good Lord only knows.
Drum casually overlooks another important point, which is the relative size of Singapore and the United States. Singapore’s population stands at just over five million – less than 1/60th the size of the U.S. and over three times larger than Idaho. Unlike the United States, Singapore is a city-state with more homogeneous interests and much greater cohesion across the people’s way of life. It is naked self-deception to pretend that mandatory ID is the same thing for a city as for an extended republic like Idaho or a federation of extended republics like the United States.
For Drum, a national ID is by definition nothing more than “a way to make our lives more convenient,” and we should “get the whole Nazi-inflected ‘papers please’ thing out of our heads.” As to its advantages, he muses, “The whole voter ID movement would become moot. Sure, go ahead and require ID. Why not, as long as everyone has it?” Since in Drum’s imagination it seems no government anywhere has ever committed a clerical error, why not indeed? He further opines, “It would make it easier to keep employers honest about hiring illegal aliens.” Apparently illegal aliens who find honest work are a serious threat compared to those engaged in criminal enterprise – something a national ID system would obviously do nothing to curtail, by the way.
I admit that I’ve dealt with Drum’s comments rather harshly, but there is a deeper problem with the mindset he displays that needs to be addressed. I’ve chosen to call it “liberal nationalism,” but I’m using “liberal” here in a historical sense broad enough to include thinkers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke as well as many – if not most – Republicans in Congress. In brief, it is the view that the most fundamental relationship in society is that of an individual to a central, national government. If this is true, then all meaningful relationships with family, community, and fellow citizens must pass through a uniform filter of government approval. Government under liberal nationalism must define marriage for us, decide which charities are worthy of tax-exempt status, and ultimately regulate any and all contact one could conceivably have with another person; this last is of course achieved in part by a national ID card and the privacy violations it necessarily attends. To a liberal nationalist like Drum, this is no big deal, but there’s no logical stopping point to it. The only barrier is what people will tolerate, and we know well from history that many people are willing to tolerate tyranny for quite a long time. In the name of individualism, liberal nationalism destroys the freedom necessary for true individuality.
“National ideals choke out the influence of genuine shared values and meaningful customs”
Liberal nationalism carries out its task by imposing uniform, one-size-fits-all rules across a vast, diverse collection of people. In order to avoid the charge of favoritism toward any one community or group, these rules must be abstract and unresponsive to the particular needs of particular communities. Culture and social life become sterile and bland as vague national ideals choke out the influence of genuine shared values and meaningful customs. As a member of a local community, you can be valued as a unique person; as a member of a nation-state, you are only an anonymous taxpayer designated by number and – if Drum gets his way – tracked by a universal ID card.
In contrast to liberal nationalism, localism can and does recognize instances where values like family privacy, community, and personal liberty must reign supreme. A true sense of community built around a local, shared way of life makes a person more respectful of his neighbors’ privacy and other rights. The mass society of liberal nationalism encourages the opposite – a herd mentality conforming to the lowest common denominator and obsessed with achieving an impossible guarantee of safety and fairness in every human interaction.
In short, localism fosters trust; nationalism fosters fear. Put not your faith in national ID or any other nationalist scheme. Instead, live locally.