Identity cards also have costs
By Scott Sumner
The Economist has an article that focuses on the benefits of giving each citizen an identity card:
Around the world, about one billion people lack official proof of their identities, reckons the World Bank. Such citizens cannot, in many cases, get services such as health care, welfare and education. They also struggle to exercise their rights to vote or live in their home countries. States need this information, too. Without it, governments have no idea whom to tax, conscript and protect, or where to allocate resources.
Most of the article focuses on the benefits of an identity card system, although some libertarians might wonder if making it easier to “conscript” is a benefit. Interestingly, doubts are expressed in the introductory paragraph:
The first thing that visitors to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg see is a wall of identity cards—the pieces of paper that determined where people could live and work and whom they could love. From the outset, the apartheid regime’s ability to discriminate against “nie-blankes” (non-whites) depended on having a robust system of identifying people.
And in the two concluding paragraphs:
Even as governments think about the technical problems of recording identity, they also need to grapple with the far more consequential ones around rights, governance and privacy. The starkest warning of the misuse of identity was in the Rwandan genocide, where id papers listed ethnicity, making it easy to target Tutsis. Since data on religion and ethnicity are not needed to provide services, governments should not be hoovering it up, yet many still do.
States should also be wary of denying people their rights by creating a class of citizens without papers. In Kenya, for example, the government wants everyone to register for id cards, but it discriminates against members of the Nubian minority by forcing them to appear before a security panel to prove their nationality. Modern identity systems promise to bring many benefits to Africa. But as they proliferate, so too will the temptation for politicians to misuse them.
I recently learned that the national identity card was first developed in Haiti, soon after the revolution that led the the abolition of slavery. That sounds promising, until you look more closely:
In Scott’s book, Louverture appears as a largely sympathetic figure whose name became a symbol of hope for African-Americans and who had the “dream of rebuilding the colony after a decade of war and joining the family of nations on an equal basis.” But what did “rebuilding the colony” entail? For Louverture and his principal deputies, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henry Christophe, it meant reestablishing the plantation system and bringing exports of cash crops back to prerevolutionary levels. And this, in turn, meant reestablishing some version of the ferocious discipline needed to run sugar plantations, in particular. Louverture vehemently opposed slavery and promised workers a portion of plantation revenues, but he also imposed a stringent labor code that amounted to a kind of serfdom, prohibiting workers from leaving the land they worked. In 1801 he even ordered all citizens to carry identification cards to help authorities enforce the code, making Saint-Domingue the first country in history to adopt a full-fledged national identification system. Louverture, Dessalines, and Christophe appropriated some of the wealthiest plantations for their own personal property. And while the new plantation overseers did not use whips and chains, they beat recalcitrant workers with vines and subdued them with rope.
There’s been a lot of recent discussion of “state capacity”. Here’s my view:
1. In the real world, for any given level of government effectiveness, smaller government is better.
2. In the real world, for any given size of government, a more effective government is better.
One can imagine governments that are too small or too effective. But we don’t see that. Small and effective is best.