The right to be let alone is the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized man.
--Justice Louis D. Brandeis
I spent much of an afternoon last week dealing with the Social Security folks, people I hadn't figured on bothering for at least a couple of decades.
But this wasn't for me. It was for my 11-year-old son.
And not that he's taken a job or plans to retire or is an orphan or anything else that would qualify him for Social Security coverage.
No, we whiled away a couple of hours filling out forms and waiting in line because he's past the age of 2 and the Internal Revenue Service or Congress or whoever has decreed he will have a national identification card.
It's a law that's been on the books for a couple of years now, but which I have sort of ignored and fudged around on my tax returns by saying "applied for," which I figured they might accept as a matter of faith, just as I do "patent pending" on products I buy.
They apparently don't have my kind of trust, though, because last week I received a letter from the IRS. You couldn't classify it as a threatening letter, although frankly I consider anything other than a refund check threatening when it comes from them.
"We previously informed you that the law requires a Social Security number be included on your tax return for each dependent over the specified age listed on our tax return," the letter says.
It goes on to remind me that despite the fact that I apparently missed that little stipulation again last year, they had magnanimously processed my return. But now they've had enough.
"For the tax year 1989, you must (my emphasis) include the name and Social Security number for each dependent you claim who is age 2 or older."
Without it, my tax person informs me, the IRS can either disallow the exemption or bounce the whole return back at me (you, too).
So, always remembering my mother's dictum to "never hit a gorilla with a stick," I called Social Security to find out what I needed in order to comply.
Then, armed with my son's birth certificate, a second piece of identification for him (his latest report card) and two pieces of identification for myself, I trotted off to the Social Security office.
If nothing else, the law certainly has transformed the atmosphere there. At least at this time of the year, it's more like a child-care center than an agency dealing with the needs of older citizens.
The place was jammed with impatient mothers and even more impatient children, crying, fighting with one another and generally carrying on as children usually do when Mom is forced to stand in a long line.
But, unlike the mothers with unruly kids I've seen at the market or the bank, these weren't making much effort to control them. It might have been my imagination, but the ladies acted as if they wouldn't have been displeased if the place got trashed.
"This is the single dumbest thing I've ever heard of," fumed the lady behind me as she wrestled with a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old and the forms. "Why don't they just issue the damn things with the birth certificate if they want so badly for kids to have them?"
"Why do they need them at all?" the mother in front of me demanded. "And why 2 years old and not 5 or 7?"
Another woman suggested it might have something to do with the mental age level of whoever came up with the idea.
And they all took it out on the poor clerks, who assured each of us in turn that this wasn't exactly a hoot for them either. They said they had nothing to do with the new law, and I believe them, because all it does is complicate their jobs.
Now, this whole situation is particularly galling to someone like myself who is almost irrational when it comes to personal privacy.
I could never be hornswoggled by someone selling gold over the phone (click!) or encyclopedias at my door (slam!) for the simple reason that I refuse to deal with anyone who tampers with my solitude.
Every now and then you will read about someone trying to give away cash money on the street and being rebuffed. Well, I'd be one of those rebuffers.
I don't even write checks to department stores because I don't want to be on their mailing lists. And, even though I use nothing but cash, the checkout people persist.
"May I have your name and phone number for our records, please?"
No, you may not!
"Your ZIP code, please, for a survey we're doing?"
I even got into a wrangle with the police last summer when they dropped by to tell my older son's band to quiet down a little. I told them I would ensure the peace of the neighborhood and they asked my name. I told them. Then, they asked my birth date.
I suggested they didn't need it unless they planned on sending a card or a gift. They insisted they did and hinted that I just might be a little more forthcoming after a trip to the station house.
Only after I demanded to see the state, municipal or federal law that says I can be arrested for withholding my birth date did they go away, and none too happy at that.
Now, I'm wondering if maybe there isn't such a law. After all, it makes as much sense as identification cards for 2-year-olds.