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Sunday, May 22, 2005


A pledge on ID

I admit it; I am not a fan of Identification Card legislation. Identification Cards will reduce our civil liberties. If the cards are to be of any value to the practice of law enforcement people will have to be required to carry them. It will formalise and accelerate the trend where it is demanded of people that they provide documentary evidence of their legitimacy. This process of constant identification and verification will create a powerful database containing the actions, movements and interests of people. This invasion of privacy may have legitimate uses, but it is nevertheless open to abuse. It is not enough to say, ‘If you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear.’ If that were to be a realistic argument, rather than a rhetoric trick employed by the dishonest or the feebleminded, then those using it could have no objection to me searching their house, listening to their phone calls, or watching them as they make love. And so on. But of course they would have objections. But I am relatively powerless. Imagine what value such information could have in the hands of people with vastly greater power to act; the very people who would have access to the database.

But this is not a libertarian argument against Identification Cards. This is a socialist argument against Identification Cards. I believe that government (and the economy) should be under democratic control. Identification Cards are part of a process of that is reversing the trend towards political and economic democracy. Rather than increasing the accountability of the state to the people, Identification Cards make people accountable to the institution of government. Furthermore, given the habit of New Labour (and their shadowy enemies, the Tories, are no different), government will delegate these powers to business, as private companies will seek to extract profit from the cards and the resulting database.

It is with this privatisation of government and law enforcement where I depart from the arguments put forward by many anti-Identification Card campaigners. I see Identification Cards as being only inadvertently anti-civil liberties. This is despite the authoritarian tendencies of this New Labour government, a tendency that was confirmed by the bills laid out in the Queen’s Speech. I oppose Identification Cards as I see them as an anti-democratic (in a manner quite distinct from civil liberties concerns) pincer movement. One claw of this pincer is the privatisation of law enforcement (or whatever it is that will be the latest justification for Identification Cards). It is important that law enforcement is accountable to the people (and is of the people), yet privatisation sets up barriers that obstruct this accountability. More than that, the scheme to establish an Identification Card scheme in Britain will be tremendously expensive. I have no problem with big government per se, but this is not what Identification Cards are. They are the allocation of public money to private companies in what can only be a repeat of the grossly inefficient IT schemes (see for example, the CSA and the Police radio scandals), possibly in conjunction with the pork-barrel politics of Public-Private Partnerships. It other words, power and wealth are siphoned from our democratic institutions and into the hands of private interests. This appears to be New Labour dogma. Handing public money and public power to private interests to profit from seems to me to be institutionalised and legalised corruption.

You might argue that this decision is being made democratically, so therefore the result is democratic. To which I reply, “don’t be a fool!” A decision made democratically can be profoundly anti-democratic. If we all voted for an absolute monarchy, would we then still be a democracy?

Last, let us consider the arguments for Identification Cards:

They would help fight terrorism. When the spectre of terrorism is raised by authoritarian politicians they are drawing on the image of 9/11. All the hijackers on 9/11 carried perfectly legal identification documentation. Identification Cards, no matter how sophisticated, would not have stopped them. The proponents of Identification Cards know this. To invoke the memory of nearly 3,000 dead in such circumstances is distastefully dishonest. Neither would Identification Cards have prevented the bombings in Madrid. Just which act of terrorism would Identification Cards have foiled?

Faced with these arguments, proponents of Identification Cards backslide, without conceding their terrorist-fighting credentials. They start to talk about crime, about benefits and on and on.

How would Identification Cards prevent crime, exactly? The only way this could work is if the police start routinely pulling people off the streets and checking their identity. If you are for this sort of slip towards a police state, then I am violently against you. You are either foolish or wicked.

Benefits. Ah yes, the argument of last resort for Identification Card proponents. I would be with you on this one. As soon as tax evasion is tackled with the full force of drastic authoritarian initiatives. As soon as the businessman who buys dinner for his friends and family and claims it as a business expense for tax purposes has his door kicked in by abusive policemen. Indeed, as soon as the amount of estimated benefit fraud exceeds the amount of benefit that goes unclaimed by people either too proud to claim what they need and deserve, or those excluded from the knowledges required to claim. As soon as those measures are in place, I am with you. Until then I see what this argument is, a demonisation of the poor and powerless which deflects blame for the state of the nation away from those in power (necessarily, those responsible) – and more than that, allows them to profit from the demonisation of the poor through a privatised surveillance system.

There are no good arguments for an Identification Card system in the reality of 21st century Britain. I pledge not to sign up for one. I urge you to do so too.

[link thanks to Shot By Both Sides]

Being an intelligent fellow, sooner or later, you will realise the folly of giving anything but the bare minimum of your hard-earned money to any government for precisely the reasons you lay out above. I do so love it when people who "have no problem with big government" suddenly realise how their money is wasted.

Beware, Andrew, the deeply subversive thought is about to occur to you that *you* could actually spend your money more wisely than the government. Shocking thought! After that, it is downhill all the way to small government liberalism. "The horror, oh, the horror".
I am afraid not, David.

Tax funding and democratic government administration are the only ways to provide services to the very people who need them most. The rich - those who benefit most from the arrangement of the economy (and who are possessors of a wealth of other, intagible, 'capital') - have no problem ensuring that their children are educated, they have pensions, their environment is clean, their health is protected. And so on.

Furthermore, there are functions of government that simply cannot be provided by a bricolage of private provision. This includes the obvious examples of defence, law and order, environmental protection, industrial regulation (and before you moan, this is necessary for the protection of workers' rights). But it also includes providing an education system that provides an equal education for all, regardeless of the 'sins' of the parents, it also includes the provision of a social safety net, it also includes the supply of programmes that are designed to help lift people from poverty traps.

I am sorry, but I favour big government. What I demand is the increasing democratization of government.
For these cards to be truly effective, they need to be used with every financial transaction. Any discrepancy between incomings and outgoings would ring an alarm bell on that individual, and their affairs can be investigated. So in one fell swoop we've found theives, people handling stolen goods, cash-in-hand workers including prostitutes and drug dealers... the list goes on. Criminal-loving Liberals like David Duff might call this Big Government Interference, but I call it COMMON SENSE. Those who are truly innocent have NOTHING to fear.
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