Government Identity Programs in Collapse?

Government Computer News has had a number of articles recently about the problems besieging the Transportation Worker Identity Card (or TWIC), one of a number of government identification systems nominally responding to the post-9/11 threat environment.  It should be no surprise to government watchers that a service provider for TWIC, viewed by many as unqualified, happens to be in the district of the former Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s Homeland Security Subcommittee.

The REAL ID Act is a bigger government identity control project, by far, which attempts to force states to convert their drivers’ licenses into a national ID card.  Regulations implementing REAL ID are widely expected to be released this week.  

Even while the architects of the surveillance state gather to talk about implementation, the Washington Post has an article out today that is probably best taken as the first post mortem on REAL ID

The headline (“As Bush’s ID Plan Was Delayed, Coalition Formed Against It”) wrongly attributes REAL ID to the Bush Administration, which was not a proponent of REAL ID, though the President did accept it as part of a military spending bill.  The article correctly attributes responsibility to Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), the former Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Though the Bush Administration has room to distance itself from this colossal unfunded national surveillance mandate, a prominent member of the Administration appears to have consumed the REAL ID Koolaid - in quantity.

“If we don’t get it done now, someone’s going to be sitting around in three or four years explaining to the next 9/11 commission why we didn’t do it,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee on Feb. 13.

Secretary Chertoff’s shameless terror-pandering is matched only by his ignorance of identification’s utility as a security tool.  People who understand identification know that it does not provide security against committed threats.

It’s unfortunate that government works by trial and error, but this trial may soon show that a national ID is error.

Market Education Could End the Culture War

Over at SayAnythingBlog, Rob notes a case of two Boston families complaining that their children were taught about homosexuality in elementary school. The parents, apparently religious conservatives, objected to the lesson being taught without parental consent. A federal judge has just told them: tough luck.

Yet another skirmish in the culture war. We’ve gotta keep fighting it, and we’ve gotta keep racking up winners and losers, right?

Wrong. Rob notes:

this is exactly the sort of thing school vouchers would solve.  School crossing the line and teaching your kid about things you find morally offensive?  Or things that should wait until they’re a little older?  Take your kids to a different school.

While I’ve argued that education tax credits do a better job than vouchers of avoiding such conflicts (scroll down the linked page to “Conviction, Compulsion, and Conflict”), this is essentially the same argument that Cato’s ed. staff has been making regarding all the values battles that arise due to our official government school system.

A free market in education can allow families to obtain the sort of education they value for their own children without forcing them to impose those values on their neighbors. Our existing school system, by contrast, creates an endless battle over what will be taught in the schools.

Rob gets it, and a lot of other people are starting to get it, too.

Europeans Want More Tax Harmonization — Which Means Higher Taxes

There already is a minimum fuel levy in the European Union, but governments are allowed to impose higher taxes (but never lower taxes, of course). This tax difference is causing some truckers to drive longer distances to buy fuel where diesel taxes are lower. The proposed response to this alleged problem is to reduce the difference in the tax among jurisdictions. Needless to say, the Euro-crats have decided that the solution is higher tax rates for all nations.

The EU Observer reports on the latest evidence that tax harmonization is always a scheme to increase government power:

EU tax commissioner László Kovács is set to table a proposal to harmonize the minimum level of excise duties at €359 per 1000 litres of diesel in 2012 and subsequently at €380 in 2014, a move which would see most EU states increasing their current rates.

According to Mr Kovács’ paper — seen by EUobserver — such a rise would stamp out so-called fuel tourism, as big trucks now make detours from their routes to tank in a state where it is the cheapest, generating more greenhouse gas emissions as well as losses to some EU states’ coffers. Germans, for example, are willing to drive two to four additional kilometres for each euro cent price differential compared to a neighbouring country in the case of gas oil. Fuel tourism cost Germany €1.9 billion in 2004.

…[O]ne Lithuanian diplomat [is now] saying the Brussels proposal should be scrapped as it would translate into an overall increase in prices and inflation. “It could freeze Lithuania’s euro hopes”, a diplomat told EUobserver, adding “taxes remain one’s competitive edge and countries with high rates have taken a voluntary risk”.

Sunstein, Hayek, and Wikipedia

University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein may not be among libertarians’ favorite thinkers, but Sunstein is, in his own way, a strong advocate of individual liberty and free markets.

Hayek fans will enjoy Sunstein’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post, in which he describes how individuals are using computer-age technology to aggregate information. A snippet:

Developing one of the most important ideas of the 20th century, Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek attacked socialist planning on the grounds that no planner could possibly obtain the “dispersed bits” of information held by individual members of society. Hayek insisted that the knowledge of individuals, taken as a whole, is far greater than that of any commission or board, however diligent and expert. The magic of the system of prices and of economic markets is that they incorporate a great deal of diffuse knowledge.

Wikipedia’s entries are not exactly prices, but they do aggregate the widely dispersed information of countless volunteer writers and editors. In this respect, Wikipedia is merely one of many experiments in aggregating knowledge and creativity that have been made possible by new technologies.

Sunstein’s op-ed goes on to discuss intriguing experiments with events futures, which should delight Cato friend Robin Hanson:

But wikis are merely one way to assemble dispersed knowledge. The number of prediction markets has also climbed over the past decade. These markets aggregate information by inviting people to “bet” on future events — the outcome of elections, changes in gross domestic product, the likelihood of a natural disaster or an outbreak of avian flu.

Fairly Ridiculous

A Maryland legislator has introduced an absurd bill that would allow the state to seize unused funds on gift cards. 

From WJLA-TV’s website:

Democratic Delegate Joseline Pena-Melnyk testified Thursday before a House committee that after four years, the state should take money on old gift cards as abandoned property. She argued that companies are unfairly keeping money paid for gift cards and gift certificates.

To Delegate Pena-Melynyk, “fairness” apparently means confiscating money from individuals and businesses and spending it on her priorities, in this case public education.

If I learned one thing during my 13 years in Maryland’s public education system, it’s that taking people’s stuff isn’t fair.

Scared Stiff? Watch John Stossel

Tonight, John Stossel of ABC News offers a special report entitled “Scared Stiff: Worried in America.” The two-hour program, which is a special report of ABC News’ “20/20” and airs at 9pm Eastern, is a follow-up to Stossel’s very first special 12 years ago, “Are We Scaring You to Death?”

Among Stossel’s interviewees tonight are two familiar faces for Cato fans: adjunct fellow Veronique de Rugy (of AEI) and former visiting fellow John Mueller (of Ohio State University). Vero will discuss her research into the billions of dollars wasted in the name of “terrorism defense” and John will put the terrorism risk into context by comparing it to the far-more likely risk of drowning in a bathtub or being struck by a deer.

A Pox on Unanimity

In Slate, Doug Kmiec criticizes the Court’s decision in Philip Morris v. Williams for its lack of unanimity and argues, echoing the fashionable arguments of Chief Justice Roberts, that unamimity helps promote “clear rules” because judges must “work out their disagreements before they write their opinions.”

I’ve previously suggested (here) that this is backwards. Unanimous decisions are, on balance, likely to be less clear than 5-4 decisions: 

It’s not clear that Roberts’ prediction (that consensus on the Court yields clarity, precision, and narrowness) is right. Consensus-building in Congress, another multi-member voting body, is purchased at the price of legal fuzziness. The more amorphous and open-ended the statute — the more the statute defers tough questions — the more members of Congress agree to add their names to it. 

While consensus building on the Supreme Court is a simpler prospect, there’s no reason to think the same basic dynamic won’t apply here too: Supreme Court justices will purchase broad agreement at the price of clarity, harming the rule of law. 

In a very good post, Ilya Somin makes a similar point, writing in response to Kmiec, here:

Many of the complex balancing tests and complicated exceptions to rules that legal commentators like to make fun of in Supreme Court opinions are the result of the need to “count to five” — corral the five votes needed to create a binding Supreme Court decisons. Counting to nine is usually likely to require more compromise — and thus more complicated balancing tests and exceptions — than counting to five.