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Count Me Out

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I got a letter from my friendly federal government the other day. It notified me that in about a week I will be mailed my U.S. Census 2000 form. Why they didn’t just send the form instead of the notice, I can’t fathom. But that’s the least of it.

The letter tells me that I should fill out and return the form promptly because “Your response is very important.” It goes on to say that the “United States Constitution requires a census of the United States every 10 years…. By completing your census form, you will make sure that you and members of your household are included in the official census count.”

So, as Warner Wolf might say, let’s go to the Constitution. Article I, Section 2, where the Constitution discusses how members of the House of Representatives are to be selected, notes that there can be no more than one representative per 30,000 citizens. Thus the population needs to be counted, or enumerated. “The actual Enumeration,” the Constitution states, “shall be made … within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as [the Congress] shall by Law direct.”

It is clear, then, that Congress was delegated the power to count the population so that congressional districts can be drawn according to constitutional requirements. But the Congress and executive branch have other things in mind. We know this because the next paragraph of the letter states, “Official census counts are used to distribute government funds to communities and states for highways, schools, health facilities, and many other programs you and your neighbors need [sic]. Without a complete, accurate census, your community may not receive its fair share.”

The only funds the government has are those it takes from us. The census, in other words, is integral to the distribution of booty. The government today is primarily a wealth-transfer machine. The welfare state levies record-high taxes on producers and distributes the money to favored constituencies so the incumbents can stay in power. Some are low-income constituencies, but many are middle-class and upper-class groups. If government is going to distribute the booty in a way that maximizes the politicians’ interests, it needs information. That’s why the census form does not just ask how many people live at your address.

For example, the form asks your race. (“Each respondent decides his or her racial identity.”) The official explanation for this intrusive question is this: “Race is key to implementing any number of federal programs and it is critical for the basic research behind numerous policy decisions. States require these data to meet legislative redistricting requirements. Also, they are needed to monitor compliance with the Voting Rights Act by local jurisdictions. Race data are required by federal programs that promote equal employment opportunity and to assess racial disparities in health and environmental risks.” Put succinctly, if the government has race-based programs, it needs to know your race. Never mind that those programs violate equality under the law and other principles of justice.

The Census Bureau cleverly notes that race has been part of the census since 1790. But it doesn’t explain why. Back then a slave counted as three-fifths of a person. (Slaveholders wanted slaves fully counted to maximize southern political clout. Northerners didn’t want them counted at all.)

The short census form asks other personal questions: do you own or rent your home? How old are you? What’s your relationship to the household? Are you Hispanic? The long form, which one in six households will get, asks about many other things, including marital status, education, ancestry, disabilities, place of work, journey to work, number of bedrooms, plumbing and kitchen facilities, monthly rent, and much, much more. If your neighbor asked this, you’d punch him in the nose.

The government wants the information so it can do mischief. Statistics, as the late economist Murray Rothbard pointed out, are the eyes of Leviathan. If it is going to meddle in our lives, it needs a scientific rationalization-statistics! They will also provide data to private marketers, who are happy to see Americans compelled to give personal information under penalty of law (a maximum $100 fine for refusal to sign) rather than do their own damn research.

What was Nancy Reagan’s slogan again? Just say no?

This post was written by:

Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.