The Clinton Administration apparently intends to move ahead with a
proposal, approved by the Republican Congress, which would assign to
everybody in America a unique health identifier which would then
inevitably become a universal ID card, providing centralized access to
all of an individual’s medical records and other personal information
throughout their whole lifetime.
Advocates are making much of the supposed benefits that would flow
such a system. It would mean that when you changed health plans,
hospitals, or locations, the touch of a button would provide access to
your health records. It would be a great boon to medical research. But
it would also mean, of course, that for purposes better or worse the
government and other folks who manage to acquire access to the system
would have all the details of your medical history.
But the mere fact that we now have the ability to keep track of all
these things doesn’t mean that in order to save the bureaucrats some
trouble — or even to gain some particular benefits of “efficiency” –
should allow them to centralize information about our lives in this
way. And when such a system carries the inherent danger that “identity”
will become a federal government-issued privilege, it becomes a direct
threat to our liberty.
In Nazi Germany, family medical history was used to help purify the
race; they practiced infanticide based on it. In China today, couples
must register and be approved before they can have their one baby.
Would a centralized, national, and inescapable ID card system tied to
medical history make the enforcement of similar policies here easier?
Of course it would.
In order to maintain our liberty we must maintain a sphere of private
action, and private action means action that takes place in private,
where we decide for ourselves who is privy to certain details of our
life. Is it possible to maintain the private sphere in the face of the
centralizing possibilities of modern technology and bureaucratic
organizations, both in the private sector of the corporation and in the
government sector? This question poses a fundamental challenge to our
system of self-government, and one that has even more serious
implications for the liberties of our children and grandchildren. We
can answer it in the right way, but not without taking serious thought
and serious action.
If we remain on auto-pilot, the emerging affinity between the
internationalists and big government suggests that a kind of corporate
totalitarianism could be the dangerous wave of the future. Whether it
be the centralization of health care data, or the equally obnoxious
“school to work” vocational tracking schemes in education, the
distinction between public and private “administration” of our lives is
disappearing. We can see a growing divergence between what appears to
be the ambition of leaders of all stripes to ‘control the situation,’
and what ought to be our ambition to retain mature liberty. China is
providing the paradigm for this future. The Chinese dictators are
reinventing Communism in the form of the corporate totalitarian state.
It would be very short-sighted to sit back while all the instruments
that are needed to abuse us are created, on the assumption that even
though we let them all be put into place they will never be used against
us. If we ignore the preparation of the building blocks of
totalitarianism, we will not be exempt from the kind of abuses that have
occurred in this century in societies that were just as ‘sophisticated’
as we are.
The technological changes occurring today would pose challenges for
liberty even if we could be assured of perpetually benign rulers. But,
as our Founders knew, in every generation there are people on the
look-out for ways to deprive others in their society of freedom, and to
gain greater control over them. So we must be especially vigilant in our
time, when issues are arising which appear to invite the creation of an
apparatus that would extend control to a more pervasive and deeper level
than ever before in the history of man. This is a time when a people
serious about retaining its liberty must insist that its representatives
show foresight and statesmanship in anticipating such threats to
liberty, without rejecting the great promise of technological advances.
What do we have instead? Specious arguments for efficiency and
effectiveness are being heeded by the Congress, while arguments
concerning precautions necessary to protect our liberty aren’t even
being considered. That’s why I am so upset with the Republicans for
letting the national ID card go through the Congress. Such decisions
lack even a trace of the kind of statesmanship that is needed to protect
a free people. The fundamental job of the Congress is to protect our
liberty intelligently, not “rationalize” our health insurance for us.
The history of this century ought to have made us more aware than
of the ways in which a powerless people can be abused on a massive scale
by the state. How can we be complacent about this at the end of the
20th century, which has seen more atrocity and more subversion of human
dignity than ever before in the history of the world? Vigilant awareness
of dangers to human liberty and dignity presented by technologically
enhanced government power is crucial now.
The fundamental issues here are not new. In his famous book 1984,
Orwell gave us a preview of the danger we face. Orwell’s phrase ‘Big
Brother is watching you’ conveyed not only the chilling evil of
totalitarianism. It also provided a deft summary of the way in which
totalitarian control is slipped onto people, because in 1984 the
metaphor of the big brother is intended by the regime to comfort and
soothe. The notion that Big Brother is watching out for us suggests
that somebody a little older and wiser is taking us by the hand to guide
us through life, to help us deal with the difficulties, to cope with the
We are not likely to lose our freedom to somebody who stands up and
“I want to take your freedom so I can oppress and destroy you.’” We will
lose it to somebody, like Bill Clinton, who “feels our pain” and wants
to take our freedom so that he can help us deal with that pain.
So when our own helpful big brothers first begin to consolidate in
hands of bureaucrats and politicians instruments that are unsafe at any
speed, we shouldn’t listen to the sweet words. We should rather consult
our common sense in order to avoid the pitfalls — such as identity
that could easily become internal passports — that will destroy our
freedom. And we should choose only leaders who have the principled
common sense to do so.