On a National ID: It Depends

Matt Yglesias is for a national ID card?!?! Nooooooooo!

Wait. So he’s with Kevin Drum. And Drum writes:

I’d go even further: implement a national ID and give one to everybody, free of charge. You get it when you turn 18 (or whatever), and you get a free update every five years (or whatever). Post offices would handle most of the work, and roving mobile vans would trek through rural areas periodically to make sure everyone has easy access to whichever federal agency is tasked with providing the cards. Instead of simply requiring people to have picture IDs, the federal government would do everything it could to make sure everyone actually has a picture ID, with as little hassle as possible. Once this was in place, everyone with an ID could vote on election day unless they were barred for some affirmative reason, which might still vary from state to state. No registration required.

Okay, this doesn’t sound crazy. But would this be the primary purpose of a national ID card? Generally speaking, we hear about “tamper-proof” IDs to facilitate immigration controls, which is to say we’d want to entire labor market to depend on the tamper-proofness of the cards. As Bruce Schneier has argued, that’s bananas, in a bad way

I’ll note that Schneier is mainly dismissive of a national ID for this reason:

Proponents of national ID cards want us to assume all these problems, and the tens of billions of dollars such a system would cost — for what? For the promise of being able to identify someone?

What good would it have been to know the names of Timothy McVeigh, the Unabomber, or the DC snipers before they were arrested? Palestinian suicide bombers generally have no history of terrorism. The goal is here is to know someone’s intentions, and their identity has very little to do with that.

And of course your identity matters when it comes to voting, so I take the Yglesias-Drum point on this very narrow issue. But my guess is that the benefit wouldn’t justify the cost, leaving aside the very real problem of mission creep.