For 20 years, the party now in power has been crusading for smaller government. But that
was then. Since Sept. 11, we've gotten a rude awakening that everything from our personal and
national security to the rebuilding of a stunned economy depends on an effective government.
We also got a look at public workers in action - New York's police, fire, and EMT heroes - not a lazy
bureaucrat among them.
But as we necessarily expand government's role in this crisis, we also need to make sure that
government's expanded police powers don't take away our freedoms.
We got something of the same lesson after Pearl Harbor, when our war production, civil defense, and
intelligence capability were all pitifully inadequate. In that crisis, government rose to the occasion and
rallied the nation. (It also incarcerated hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese-Americans.) In this
crisis, there is still some hesitancy to act because of the current administration's residual preference for
the private sector.
But consider these priorities:
Airport security. Competent screening of who boards planes is the first line of defense against an
attempted hijacking. Our current privatized system of cut-rate security checks is an easily penetrated
joke. Airport security should be a function of law enforcement - a coherent, national, government-run
system manned by trained professionals.
Border security. Though government-run, our border security is also a sieve. Millions of people enter
this country illegally, get counterfeit IDs, and slip into American society. The Immigration and
Naturalization Service is so overwhelmed patrolling borders that once an immigrant makes it to the
interior, he or she is effectively home free. Whether we as a society choose to admit relatively large
numbers of legal immigrants (my choice) or impose stingy quotas, we need to know who is in our
country. This is also a government function. It needs to be adequately financed and run professionally.
Civil defense. President Bush recently appointed Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge to head a
Cabinet-level office of what the president calls Homeland Defense. But unless the administration is
willing to bring greater coherence to the myriad of local, state, federal, and volunteer agencies, Ridge will
be as frustrated as the White House drug czars. Worse, the nation will remain vulnerable to all manner of
terror, because a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
National planning. Conservatives detest the idea, but we will need a coherent planning process for
everything from tracking terrorists to rebuilding a transportation system. The ad hoc bailout of the
airlines and the helter-skelter attempt to shore up airport security are exactly the wrong way to go. We
also need a planning process to rebuild public infrastructure, both as economic stimulus and as a
long-deferred public need.
Public health. Thanks to new concerns about bio-warfare, public health will finally get more money. But
beyond protecting us from anthrax bombs or smallpox raids, we need a stronger public health system to
do everything that private for-profit managed care is failing to do.
ID cards. Along with my driver's license and my health insurance card, one of the valued items in my
wallet is my ACLU membership. But even as a good civil libertarian, I'd welcome a national ID card.
Think about it. Our names and confidential records already repose in the electronic files of credit
agencies and health insurers. Our shopping habits are tabulated, bought and sold. If we drive a car, pay
taxes, have a Social Security card, or take a foreign trip (which describes nearly all adult Americans), the
government already knows who we are. But because we're not serious about using any of these
databases explicitly for identification, we're awash in fake IDs.
Better to have a single, national ID card, one that would be much harder to forge. Such a card would also
have benefits. Voting fraud and under-counting would just about vanish; citizens would have an easier
time qualifying for available government benefits; the Census would be accurate. And the government,
finally, could keep better track of who was in the country.
The issue is not whether to have ID cards - we already have plenty - but whether we have adequate
protections against their abuse. Today we have the worse of both worlds - proliferating databases and
inadequate protections of our privacy.
Jefferson understood this paradox: We need a government strong enough to protect both our security
and our liberty, our freedoms and our rights. Let's hope, in this crisis, that we give government both
adequate resources and necessary constraints.