Jonah Goldberg

With the Supreme Court taking up Arizona's "show me your papers" immigration law, we're once again thrust into a useful debate over the role of the government and the obligations of the citizen -- and non-citizen. Rather than come at it from the usual angle, I thought I'd try something different.

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, 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.

Perhaps the most obvious means of making the populace legible is the identity card or internal passport. The history of the identity card is a fascinating and shockingly complex one. For instance, did you know that identity cards were seen as a war on bigamy in many countries?

Opponents of the Arizona immigration law like to conjure scenes from Nazi Germany, with the Gestapo asking, "Ihre papiere, bitte" ("Your papers, please"). And it's indisputably true that police states, from Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union to Castro's Cuba and the North Korea of the Kims, have a deep relationship with the identity card for obvious reasons. But German officials were saying "Ihre papiere, bitte" long before anyone heard of the Nazis.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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