If there were one thing I could impress upon people about the nature of the state, it’s that governments by their very nature want to make their citizens “legible.”
I borrow that word from James C. Scott, whose book Seeing Like a State left a lasting impression on me. Scott studied why the state has always seen “people who move around” to be the enemy. Around the world, according to Scott, states have historically seen nomadic peoples, herdsmen, slash-and-burn hill people, Gypsies, hunter-gatherers, vagrants, and runaway slaves and serfs as problems to be solved. States have tried to make these people stay in one place.
But as Scott examined “sedentarization” (making mobile people settle down), he realized this practice was simply part of a more fundamental drive of the state: to make the whole population legible to the state. The premodern state was “blind” to its subjects. But the modern state was determined first to see them, and then organize them. This is why so many rulers pushed for the universal usage of last names starting around 1600 (aristocrats had been using family or clan names for centuries already). The same goes with the push for more accurate addresses, the standardization of weights and measures, and of course the use of censuses and surveys. It’s much easier to collect taxes, conscript soldiers, fight crime, and put down rebellions if you know who people are and where they live.
This is the same guy who wrote:
And this brings me to our current debate over Arizona’s immigration laws. Opponents like to conjure the police-state association of “Ihre papiere, bitte.” I think that’s wildly exaggerated (and so do several Supreme Court justices, apparently). But as someone who’s against a national ID card, I’m sympathetic to the concern nonetheless. The Constitution lists three federal crimes — treason, piracy, and counterfeiting — but today we have more than 4,500 federal crimes, all because the government in Washington wants to make the American people more legible. I don’t want to make that easier with a national ID card.
But what I wish liberal opponents would understand is that in a society where the government “gives” so much to its citizens, it’s inevitable that the state will pursue ways to more clearly demarcate the lines between the citizen and the non-citizen.
Most (but by no means all) conservatives I know would have few problems with large-scale immigration if we didn’t have a welfare state that bequeaths so many benefits on citizens and non-citizens alike. I myself am a huge fan of legal immigration. But if you try to see things like a state for a second, it’s simply unsustainable to have a libertarian immigration policy and a liberal welfare state. Ultimately, if you don’t want cops asking for your papers, you need to get rid of one or the other.
There’s a kind of argument-that-isn’t-an-argument that vexes me. I first started to notice it on university campuses. I’ve spoken to a lot of college audiences. Often, I will encounter an earnest student, much more serious looking than the typical hippie with open-toed shoes and a closed mind. During the Q&A session after my speech he will say something like “Mr. Goldberg, I may disagree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”It's very strange that one is informative, somewhat moderate, and civil while the other is pure Pantloadian. Perhaps he was just trying to raise his tone for National Review On-Line's discerning, intellectually sophisticated readership.
Then he will sit down, and the audience will applaud. Faculty will nod proudly at this wiser-than-his-years hatchling under their wings. What a glorious moment for everybody. Blessed are the bridge builders.My response? Who gives a rat’s ass?