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Tell All, or Else

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The Census Bureau wants you to tell it all sorts of things about yourself, but there’s one thing it doesn’t want to tell you: You may be punished if you disobey.

You will search in vain through the census materials you receive in the mail for notice or details of that threat. The notification letter makes no mention of a penalty. The letter containing the form states boldly, but vaguely, “Your response is required by law.”

The Bureau’s website is also silent on the matter of penalty. To the question, Why should people fill out their census forms, the answer given is: “Participating in the census is in the individual’s own self interest. People who answer the census help their communities obtain federal and state funding and valuable information for planning schools, hospitals, roads, and more. For example, census information helps decision makers understand which neighborhoods need new schools and which ones need greater services for the elderly. But they will not be able to tell what your neighborhood needs if you do not fill out your census form.”

In other words, get your share of the welfare-state booty or someone else will.

I knew from past census campaigns that there is a punishment threatened, so I called the Census Bureau in Maryland to ask about it. Getting information was like pulling teeth.

Why is there nothing about penalties? I asked.

“There’s a good reason we don’t put information about it on the website,” said the woman at the Bureau’s Decennial Management Division. “The census bureau goes about getting the cooperation of the American people by focusing on the positive reasons for responding to the census.”

But there is a penalty for not answering, is there not?

“It depends on who you are. An individual is treated differently from the owner of an apartment house.”

Under the rule of law, aren’t citizens entitled to know in advance there is a penalty for refusing to comply?

“We don’t put people in jail because they don’t respond to the questions. We try to appeal to their better instincts.”

What if someone refuses?

“We don’t go out of our way to enforce the law.”

But what if someone refuses?

She said that when she was a census taker, she would patiently explain the benefits from an accurate count.

And if a person still refused?

She said she would give the person time to come around. She’d come back a week later after giving the person a chance to think about it.

And if on principle he still refused?

“I don’t even want to talk about penalties.”

I asked her to quote the law, which she finally-reluctantly-did. Under Title 13, Section 221, of the Census Code, “refusal or willful neglect” to answer any questions to the best of one’s knowledge carries a fine of not more than $100. For giving a false answer the maximum fine is $500. Finally, the penalty for refusing to permit a census taker onto the premises is a maximum $1,000 fine and up to a year in prison. The woman at the Census Bureau said this last category applies to owners and managers of apartment houses who won’t let an enumerator enter, but she conceded that the law does not confine those harsh penalties to landlords.

So there we have it. The Constitution authorizes Congress to count the population every 10 years in order to draw districts for the House of Representatives. That’s it. But Congress exceeds its authority and orders the Census Bureau to ask about people’s race, their economic circumstances, their homes, their commute to work, even how many toilets they have.

And you can be fined, perhaps imprisoned, if you don’t comply with this intrusion.

The questions are bad enough. The answers are none of the government’s business, especially since they only plan to do mischief with them. But it is outrageous that there are hidden penalties for failure to “cooperate.” Under the American rule of law, legal obligations are supposed to be clear and any penalties spelled out in advance.

The Census Bureau doesn’t want the bad image that would result from its threatening punishment. But our legal tradition says nothing about public relations.

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    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.