The Case Against ID Cards: A Principled Approach

Whenever we undertake to study a subject we can do so from two points of view. We can try to understand the principles(1) that underpin and govern the matter, or we can look at the symptoms (or what we believe to be the symptoms) alone. Policies and laws based on unsound principles will always in the long term be detrimental in their effect, and this will of course be manifest in the nature of the symptoms. However, as mankind generally has a tendency to a short-term view, and the less honest to the obfuscation of the evidence of bad laws and policies, the symptomatic approach often fails.

I am of the firm belief that if we understand principles we will not go far astray in what we support and, as principles are universal, we will also be better armed to know the rights and wrongs on other related issues. Rest assured, freedom is not about opinion, it is about principle because there is an unchanging commonality in people that regards neither time nor place, and there are unalterable laws that govern human life and all who are a part of it.(2)

So let’s look at some of these principles and how they relate to the idea of a government-mandated ID system.

Principle #1: Governments receive their just powers from the governed(3)

As an individual I do not possess the right to stop someone going about their daily business. I do have the right to stop someone who is, or decidedly appears to be, seeking to violate my rights. This right itself emanates from my right to self-defence.

Those policing in my (and others’) absence may therefore exercise this same power to stop suspects; but just as I cannot stop or make demands of anyone for any other reason, so neither can those acting as agents of the government. Why? Because they receive their authority from the individual. Something that is therefore wrong for an individual to do, is also wrong for a group of individuals to do – and that includes government.

And yet with compulsory ID cards comes the concomitant unlawful increase in police powers to stop someone and demand identification without any good reason for doing so.

Principle #2: The Right to the Presumption of Innocence

Why is it imperative that the police be able to show that they have a good reason for stopping someone? Because then they can be held to account. Without this safeguard citizens will be subject to the arbitrary whims of rulers directing the police for their own ends, to harass certain groups or individuals and generally oppress the people. The populace would have no comeback. The police will not be restrained by the knowledge that they will have to prove anything, because they won’t have to prove anything. This began to be a problem in Britain after the last World War, when ID documents still continued to be demanded by police.(4)

What does this mean in effect? It means everyone is held to be a potential criminal; presumption of innocence, long enshrined in the Magna Carta, is infringed. Relations, trust and goodwill break down. It is another step toward the freedom-destroying philosophy of corpus juris.

Principle #3: The Right to Anonymity and Privacy

Unless entering into a legal agreement with someone, I do not have the right to demand of anyone that they tell me their name or any other detail about themselves. Based on Principle #1 above, I cannot therefore delegate this authority to government because I do not myself possess it.

By printing information on an ID card or making it a means by which a central database can be accessed, this right is lost and, furthermore, opens the individual up to all manner of government targeting. It is not widely known
that ID cards provided the means by which the Nazis were able to identify Jews, yet those ID cards were issued long before Nazism arose – indeed, in a time when those who received them thought no ill of present or future government.

Principle #4: The Right to Free Speech

Part of the right to say what you want is the right to not say what others want. In other words, the right to silence. However, with a central database collecting such information as your political affiliations, religion, ethnicity, ad infinitum, the right to silence is all but quashed. You must tell them everything they want. Why is this a threat to liberty? Because all of us are a part of some group or section of society that may someday be in the government’s line of fire.


So we see that if ID cards become mandatory we will lose much of our remaining liberty: Law-abiding citizens will lose their right to be left alone (5); we will lose our right to anonymity and privacy, and thus make us susceptible to government (or private) persecution; we will lose more rights over our property by having to foot an enormous bill to maintain the ID card system; we will lose our full right to the presumption of innocence; we will lose our right to liberty as government usurps police powers it cannot lawfully possess; we will have our right to silence infringed.

And what of ID cards and the criminals, the terrorists? What man can make, man can fake. One security expert has said, “…everything I’ve learned about security over the last 20 years tells me that once it is put in place, a national ID card program will actually make us less secure.”(6). Think about it. Only law-abiding citizens lose out.


D.M. Andrews is a British novelist with a high regard for the US Constitution and libertarian principles. You can find out more about his works of fiction at



Recommended Reading

Identity Cards: Some Brief Objections by Sean Gabb (pamphlet). Addresses the liberty issues of ID cards as well as the claims that ID cards decrease crime. Available online at:

Government Paves Way for EU Identity Cards by Marc Glendening

National ID will makes US less secure by Bruce Schneier, founder and CTO of Counterpane Internet Security Inc.

UK National ID Cards

Excellent UK Civil Liberties organization. Discussion and news on ID cards at:

End Notes

(1) “Man…must necessarily be subject to the laws of his Creator…This will of his Maker is called the law of nature…This law of nature…is of course superior to any other…No human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this: and such of them as are valid derive all their force…from this original.” (Sir William Blackstone). Alexander Hamilton put it this way: “In disquisitions of every kind there are certain primary truths, or first principles, upon which all subsequent reasonings must depend. These contain an internal evidence which, antecedent to all reflection or combination, commands the assent of the mind.” (Federalist Papers, No. 31)

(2) “We are born for justice, and that right is founded not in opinion but in nature. There is indeed a true law, right reason, agreeing with nature and diffused among all, unchanging, everlasting, which calls to duty by commanding, deters from wrong by forbidding…It is not allowable to alter this law nor to deviate from it. Nor can it be abrogated. Nor can we be released from this law either by the senate or the people. Nor is any person required to explain or interpret it. Nor is it one law at Rome and another at Athens, one law today and another thereafter; but the same law, everlasting and unchangeable, will bind all nations and all times; and there will be one common Lord and ruler of all, even God, the framer and proposer of this law.” (Cicero, De Legibus II, 4,10)

(3) “Thus the principle of collective right – its reason for existing, its lawfulness – is based on individual right. And the common force that protects this collective right cannot logically have any other purpose or any other mission than that which it acts as substitute. Thus, since an individual cannot lawfully use force against the person, liberty, or property of another individual, then the common force – for the same reason – cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, liberty, or property of individuals or groups.” (Frederic Bastiat, The Law, pp. 2)

(4) Police in the UK continued to harass citizens by asking them for ID even long after the Second World War had ended. In 1951, Acting Lord Chief Justice, Lord Goddard, ruled that it was unlawful for police to demand citizens show their ID card and the National Registration Act was repealed. For more information visit

(5) “The right to be let alone is indeed the beginning of all freedom.” (Justice William O. Douglas, Public Utilities Commission v. Pollak, 343 US 451, 467 (1952) (dissenting))

(6) See National ID will make US less secure by Bruce Schneier (see Recommended Reading)


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