I Am Not a Number

Why I Disagree With James Robbins and The Objectivist Center on the Matter of a National ID Card

David M. Brown

In the wake of the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, some people, including some alleged or former advocates of liberty, are rethinking their support for standard American rights and freedoms.

American freedoms are perpetually under assault, of course, but never more so than in times of crisis and war. It is during such times that friends of liberty must be especially vigilant.

But some are defaulting on this responsibility. One example is Cathy Young, a contributing editor of Reason magazine and fairly well-known advocate of liberty or former advocate of liberty. In a column for the Boston Globe, Young suggested that perhaps we don't have any right to definitively encrypt our private stuff after all, since terrorists could then encrypt their private stuff too.

Of course, encryption control, like gun control, could only hamper the ability of innocent people to protect themselves from others, while only moderately inconveniencing the bad guys. (Some have pointed out that the debate over whether government should be given a back door entry to encrypted files is moot, as the genie is out of the bottle now. That is probably true for now, but not necessarily forever. If technological advances make it easy to break Pretty Good Privacy, then the battle will be fought over successor encryption packages.)

There are other examples of such retreat under fire. The one that concerns us here is that of James S. Robbins, writing in The Navigator under the aegis of The Objectivist Center.

In his article, Robbins said that in light of current events he isn't as adamantly opposed to the instituting of a national ID card as he was before.

I rebuked Robbins and The Objectivist Center for floating this rather poisonous trial balloon in a post for the Objectivism@wetheliving.com (OWL) discussion group. In it, I said the following:

"So now, per James Robbins's article 'What Will Happen Now?,' TOC supports a national ID card and other assaults on my privacy and liberty?

"Question: Exactly how would a national ID card have prevented the events of September 11? Will the ID card say: WARNING: THIS IS A TERRORIST HERE?

"And exactly how many of our personal liberties and rights are we now supposed to throw away?

" 'Since last Tuesday, some of my 'go to the wall' libertarian views, such as opposing a national ID card, have seemed trivial,' Robbins writes. 'The potential for government abuse is present, but the need for providing security is actual.'

"The potential for abuse is 'present'? Yeah, I'd say so.

" 'So long as there are actual checks and balances…,' Robbins advises. Great. What are the ‘checks’ and the ‘balances’ going to be, and what are the risks? Robbins supplies no discussion whatever of what's involved.

"Any chance whatever that the government will use the additional information and means provided to it via a national ID card to do anything besides combat terrorism? What's the history, for example, of the social security number? Anybody at TOC remember the fact that it was never supposed to be used as a means of identification? What was the 'check' and the 'balance' there? Any idea over at TOC as to the content of the various 'anti-terrorism' bills now before Congress? Take a look. Then take another look at what gets passed.

"Robbins also seems to support the idea of cameras, cameras, everywhere, too. I just love the idea of living in Patrick McGoohan's Village.

"Those who want to control and monitor us are leaping on this event like a pack of hyenas. It is very, very sad and disturbing to find TOC joining the pack. Meanwhile, of course, it's precisely when we enter into public situations in which our personal safety is most jeopardized by potential terrorism and other random thuggery, that we are supposed to be in particular disarmed so that we have no chance of adequately defending ourselves, if assaulted. Not unless fisticuffs will suffice.

"Most of the TOC-sponsored analysis about these horrific events has been sound. I assume not everyone at The Objectivist Center joins in Robbins's ill-considered sentiments.

"But on the other hand, there can't have been very fundamental and vocal opposition to them either, as I assume that anything that gets published in Navigator has to pass some minimal gauntlet. Isn't the editor, at least, required to peruse any articles that are slated for publication? And TOC's recently posted ‘position statement’ does seem to endorse a Robbins-style trade-off. ‘Measures that limit [rights to liberty, property, and privacy] are justified only if they are objectively required for security and are tailored to minimize restrictions on other rights.’ (Oh. And who is going to be the tailor, prithee? Cathy Young and James Robbins? I am not reassured.)

"What really bothers me is that I have found the perfect solution to the problem of security on airplanes, but it has yet to be implemented, even though, as I write, this is Day 32 of the crisis. Handcuff all passengers as they take their seats and don't remove the handcuffs until the plane has landed. That way, there will be no need for anybody to be armed, the pilot or anybody else. I am sure Robbins will endorse this, as it will enhance security. Sure, there are risks to this approach, but let's just make sure there are checks and balances too.

"Guys, it is conceivable that our 'security' will be enhanced if we are all locked up in a giant cage and nobody can do anything without first filling out a form in triplicate. Food—carefully screened in advance for poison by the Almighty Bureaucrats—could be extruded to us through various tactically placed tubules. We'll all die slowly, sure, but at least we won't die fast. Except maybe those who are really, really bothered by this sort of thing. Those pesky Howard Roark types.

"But in the spirit of unity, yeah, okay, for the sake of my 'security,' bring on the fascism.

"And I'll check my 'checks and balances' at the door."

Alas, The Objectivist Center did not immediately concede defeat and turn over the keys to their Poughkeepsie complex. In an OWL post replying to the above criticism, Shawn Klein, a webmaster for The Objectivist Center, wrote the following:

"The Objectivist Center is not calling for a national ID card, or any other specific policy positions. That is not what the Center does; it is not a policy institute. The issue of a national ID card is a technical matter for political science and/or law [sic]. Philosophy can only give the standards and principles by which such a measure must be judged. For example: Is it effective at creating security? Does it violate individual rights?

"In his commentary, James S. Robbins, a contributing writer to the Center's monthly magazine wrote—and I am paraphrasing—that he could see supporting a national ID measure if certain conditions and protections were met and if such a measure would be useful in providing increased security.

"This is hardly advocacy of a national ID card. It is a hypothetical consideration about a particular measure. And even if it were advocacy, the viewpoints of the writers are just that, the viewpoints of the writers. In fact, Mr. Robbins begins the sentence with the following phrase: 'Speaking for myself...'

"The principles that Mr. Robbins appeals to are in agreement with Objectivism [sic] and the ideas he expresses are of interest and importance to Objectivists. That is what is required for the Center to publish him. Whether or not all his claims are ultimately correct is a question for the reader to decide.

"The Objectivist Center does not require that its writers be in complete agreement with the entire corpus of Objectivist thinking and all the concrete positions Objectivists take: just the fundamental and broad principles. There is no party line; though one needs to be writing within Objectivism, he does not need to be wholly in agreement with it. Rational individuals can disagree honestly.

"I invite the members of the list to read Mr. Robbins' article as well as the other articles written by Center staff, in particular the Center's Position Statement [which specifies, of course, no positions] at: http://www.objectivistcenter.org/pubs/position_statement.asp

"Mr. Robbins' article:


"The kind of inflammatory language that Mr. Brown uses to misrepresent TOC is something I would have not expected to make it through the rubric [OWL's standards for publication]. Clearly [sic], TOC is not advocating fascism—even if it were advocating national ID cards, that is not quite sufficient for fascism—and Mr. Brown's ad hominem [sic] attack was unnecessary [sic]. Mr. Brown, or anyone, could have stated any of his disagreements with the claims Mr. Robbins made in his commentary without the insulting and confrontational language.... Note: The views expressed here are my own, and not necessarily anyone else's at The Objectivist Center."

In response to these protestations of Klein I can only concede that, yes, The Objectivist Center does not have to agree with every word of an author's article in Navigator in order to publish it. Thankfully, TOC is not like the neurotic Ayn Rand Institute, which outlaws all dissent and controversy. But I wonder if TOC would think it is okay for Navigator to publish articles advocating economic steps on the road to socialism "so long as" its own official views were allegedly explicitly different.

What's appropriate to publish in an organizational organ depends in large part on whether that publication is an avowed "open forum." Navigator is clearly not intended to be an open forum, except perhaps in letters to the editor. It does embrace discussion and dissent, but obviously within certain confines. Navigator wouldn't publish an article advocating nihilism, subjectivism, or serfdom (well, only steps on the road to serfdom, apparently). It wants its articles to be informed by a certain Enlightenment perspective.

The other problem with Klein's comments is his differentiation between Robbins's article and TOC's Position Statement. The problem here is that one of the points on the Position Statement is very ambiguous and door-opening with respect precisely to the sort of position that Robbins takes. To wit:

"Measures that limit [rights to liberty, property, and privacy] are justified only if they are objectively required for security and are tailored to minimize restrictions on other rights."

This is not a statement that rights are a contextual matter. This is a statement, presumably carefully considered and mused and mulled over, that actual contextually justifiable rights can be forfeited or trimmed if the "security threat" calls for it. There is not even a stipulation that a very temporary emergency must be involved, as when grabbing an oar that belongs to somebody else so you can save somebody from drowning. So even if certain TOC principals don't agree with Robbins, they might well have to regard his proposal as "open for consideration" or as an "incredibly technical matter that can only be resolved by appropriately trained experts like bureaucrats and brain surgeons."

The Objectivist Center is in a bind here. Obviously, any actually implemented national ID card will not be withdrawn after the "end" of the "emergency." (If you believe it will be, you also believe that income tax withholding was dropped after World War Two. And I've got a bridge to sell you.) On the other hand, if TOC believes that Robbins's call does violate its own stated principles of when and how to slice and dice my individual rights, how did his explicit endorsement of this big new step on the road to total tyranny make its way into their flagship publication?

I have been chastised for using the word "fascism" in my first public comments on this matter. I agree that nobody in this country, including Robbins and his apologists, is at present advocating the equivalent of the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany in one fell swoop. Robbins is merely adding his own voice to the many, many other voices who are merely and trivially proposing that my freedom be restricted, curtailed, squeezed and shrunk a little more and a little more and a little more every single day—despite the fact that I don't pose a "security threat" to anybody, and never have (unless bitching about hazards to my political health constitutes a security threat).

So I suppose, in order to be clear to Klein and other imaginative readers, instead of "Bring on the fascism," I should have said, "Bring on the fascism in incremental precedent-setting bits and pieces until the day when I can't do a goddamn thing without the permission and handholding of Papa State, at which point, of course, even you will object, thanks a heap." That would have been more precise.

I further stipulate for the record that I do not regard Robbins as vicious, but merely craven and obtuse. I will be happy to sign an affidavit to that effect.

But now that the glaring and obvious deficiencies in his position have been pointed out, where's the retraction and apology from Robbins? And where's the official apology from The Objectivist Center? If Klein cares about his rights, he should be thanking me from the bottom of his heart and even sending me money for my post, not chastising me. He should be sending me a check for a hundred dollars, at minimum, in compensation for my labors. (I prefer via PayPal.)

It is bootless for Klein to point out that Robbins stipulates that "appropriate safeguards, delimitations, and Christmas gift wrapping" must be in place before the national ID card is instituted. I already have—or am supposed to have—the applicable safeguards. They're called the Constitution and my individual rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The national ID would constitute a further violation and curtailing of my liberties. Okay? (And that's another ten bucks you owe me.)

Further, in addition to its per se violation of my rights, this new mandatory paper-carrying requirement would give all the bureaucrats and cops (not to mention identity thieves and hackers) yet another weapon against me. Or do James Robbins and Shawn Klein and David Kelley believe that Robbins's yet-to-be-spelled-out "safeguards" are really going to keep all those people in line? (Like the way they all scrupulously adhere to the Bill of Rights, I guess.)

Klein says the national ID is a "technical matter" that must be left to the experts. No, it is not a "technical matter." It's a personal matter. This isn't brain surgery, Mr. Klein. The national ID, with its thumbprint and social security number and microchip and amber-encased slice of DNA and hologram image of my groin, would only make it easier to monitor and control me even in areas where nobody has any right whatever to monitor and control me. That is obvious. Perhaps Klein is comfortable leaving the disposition of his own personal freedom to "the experts" and forfeiting the responsibility of a free man. I refuse to abdicate that responsibility.

Like expert Cathy Young, expert James Robbins seems to regard the sheer fact of his trepidation and trauma under the current circumstances as a sufficient logical warrant for the rest of us. Expert Robbins gives no explanation whatever in his article of how a national ID card might help security nor how its absence might have hurt security. The mere pronouncement of his opinion is supposed to sway those of us who do care about the particular exercises of freedom to which he is indifferent.

Yet the legal enactment of Robbins's un-argued-for opinion would, on the sheer face of it, dramatically expedite the systematic violation of our rights, regardless of any pro forma safeguards. Why isn't concern for this obvious prospect to be acknowledged and proved illegitimate, if the progressive destruction of what little is left of my capacity to keep my private affairs private, would indeed save us forever from all terrorism, all germ and nuclear sneak attacks and box-cutters?

I'll tell you why. Because history and common sense cannot be deployed here in favor of Robbins's assertion. How can Robbins argue, "Well, if a terrorist has to get a national ID card, he then won't commit a terrorist act"? He can't. Robbins has no arguments on this point, just intuitions and feelings.

I have feelings too. I feel that if I have to present identification papers wherever I go, that hurts my security. It would make me feel like I am a serf in a police state. My particular feelings don't trump Robbins's feelings. But the reason I would feel like that is because that's what the situation would nigh be. The fact that others might not feel the same way is irrelevant. A great many of the denizens of Patrick McGoohan's Village feel right at home. So what?

This is probably a 17-step road. We're at step 6 or 7, say—certainly very far from a Nazi-like police state. But we used to be at 2 or 3. Robbins says, oh, we should jump to about 9 or 10 if it helps our security.

But, don't worry, adds Robbins, the ratcheting can stop there, just so long as we install appropriate safeguards and delimitations; and at least we won't be annihilated by terrorists. Meanwhile, Klein says I forgot to mention the fact that Robbins said there should be safeguards. Robbins and Klein and Kelley can assure us until doomsday that it won't ever come to anyone being arrested or held for questioning if he happens not to have his ID card with him when he shops for groceries. They may well be right. But why is the act of bringing us closer and ever closer to that day a good thing? Why is it a good thing for a leading organization promoting reason, justice, freedom, and individual rights to advocate (or publish an article advocating) a measure that only brings us closer to that day? Why? Why? Why?

Unlike those libertarians who seem to believe that terrorism and the threat against the U.S. will magically disappear just as soon as we renounce Israel, I support the war on terrorism. We were attacked, we should respond, and we should stamp out the enemy. And take appropriate security measures here at home. But I do not support any war against myself.

People of America, I say unto you, there is no legitimate "security" reason, even, why I should be forced now to have a state ID to open a bank account or cash a check. Yet giving away my thumbprint is now mandatory to get a check cashed at a bank which is not my own—two forms of ID and a lock of my hair no longer suffice. (Which is why I never cash checks that way any more.) Are these security precautions uniformly followed by all banks everywhere because, in a free market, no bank would ever allow me to open a confidential and anonymous account that could be rendered secure for the bank and for me by a signature and password? Or because no bank is allowed by the government to provide such level of privacy?

Privacy doesn't kill people. People kill people. But we are starting to hear now from security "experts" like Robbins that we have no particular right at all to this cherished phantom, privacy—that toward which all of civilization is striving, according to Rand's Fountainhead. (I recommend this novel to all the policymakers at TOC.) Yet privacy is something you can buy and provide for yourself, if only you are allowed, as a free man, to buy it and provide it. It's a good like anything else. And I want that good.

I regard Robbins's TOC-sponsored advocacy or quasi-advocacy or virtual-advocacy of a national ID card as a direct personal assault on me and my liberties, one that I would never have expected from that quarter. Whether consciously or unconsciously (more likely the latter), TOC is adding its prestigious weight to too many clamoring and thoughtless voices. Their advocacy and sponsorship makes the job of turning us into serfs .0001 percent easier, which is .0001 percent too much.

Regardless of what it thought it was doing when it published Robbins's article, The Objectivist Center must now explicitly repudiate his "hypothetical" call for a national ID card, as well as its own sloppy new notion that some of my actual rights may be crimped and curtailed so long as "other rights" are not too badly mangled in the process. TOC must have the guts and the integrity to say, "Yeah, we bungled big-time here. We've been busy. Lots of pressures lately. First the towers, then the war, then this anthrax thing. Things have been hectic. It sort of slipped through. Sorry. We won't do it again." Or not. Up to them.

But, whatever, I am not a number. I am a free man.

David M. Brown is a freelance writer and editor. He may be reached at dmb1000@juno.com.

Author’s Post-Script: In addition to the families and friends of those who were slaughtered, all civilized persons in America and the world were the victims of the horrific events of September 11; which was indeed, as David Kelley characterized it, an “assault on civilization.”Any irritation that we might feel about the newfound willingness of some to restrict individual liberties in the name of national self-defense, must shrink to zero in comparison to the anger we feel toward the mass murderers and toward anybody who would seek to empower or exculpate them. Traumatized people do not always think straight. But we must try very hard.- DMB