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Count Me Out!


HISTORY DETECTIVES UNITE! What is the common element in the following episodes in American history?

• On his march through Georgia, near the end of the Civil War, Gen. William T. Sherman used a map annotated with county-by-county livestock and crop information “to help his troops ’live off the land.’”

• During World War I, the Justice Department prosecuted men who did not register for the draft. Government records helped them determine the names and ages of evaders.

• During World War II, the Army used information about how many Japanese-Americans were living on the west coast, and how many lived in any given neighborhood; and then used that data to help round them up and intern them.

• In 1983, the IRS attempted to determine the names of those not filing federal income tax returns by comparing names in government records with the names in privately purchased mailing lists.

Any guesses? How did General Sherman, the Justice Department, the Army, and the IRS get their information? If you guessed “the census,” you were right!

Censuses have played a pivotal role in American history since the time of the Revolutionary War. Some method was needed to allocate expenses among the rebelling colonies, and later among the independent states. In the Constitution, a compromise was reached among the large and small states:

Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers…. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. [Article 1, Section 2, paragraph 3]

The original constitutional mandate of the census was very limited. Its purpose was to determine the number of people living under the jurisdiction of the U.S. government. This information was needed (a) to determine the number of congressmen in the House of Representatives and how they would be apportioned among the states of the Union; and (b) to determine how federal taxes would be apportioned among the states (since direct federal taxation of individuals was prohibited).

Legislative history of the census

When the legislation for conducting the first census was discussed in the House and Senate of the first Congress, James Madison became the foremost advocate of expanding the census count beyond the simple constitutional stipulation of counting the number of “free” and “other persons” in the country. Madison, as a member of the committee responsible for the enumeration bill, proposed “classifying the population into five categories: free white males, subdivided into those over and under the age of sixteen, free white females, free blacks, and slaves — and for identifying each working person by occupation.”

The question was immediately raised whether or not this transcended Congress’s “constitutional powers in authorizing purely statistical inquiries other than those for the purposes of apportioning representatives and direct taxes.” After some discussion, Congress approved Madison’s five categories, but rejected his occupational query.

What began as a simple population count in 1790 has expanded into one of the most pervasive and invasive governmental activities that we as citizens experience. No other government on earth collects and publishes as much information about its people as the American polity. It is safe to say that every conceivable aspect of our society is measured and studied, but one of the most frequently examined is the demographic information — statistics on the number, distribution, and character of its people. This data costs the federal government several billion dollars to collect and is used to allocate many more billions of dollars in federal and state funds annually to community programs and services. The main source of that data is the decennial census, now known officially as the Census of Population and Housing.

I object to the census.

The most I am constitutionally bound to give the census taker is my name and address. Until 1840, other than perhaps age and sex, that was the extent of the information demanded by the government. Census schedules were required to be posted in two public places in the jurisdiction of each enumerator, so that his work could be inspected by the public and corrected if need be. While the census did make the citizen visible, it did not ask questions about education, housing, familial status, ancestry, disabilities, or house-heating fuel. That was none of the government’s business.

Why I object to the census

It is my contention that if there is a demand for information about my lifestyle and me, then it should be collected by private companies, in the same manner that private pollsters collect information. I object to the census-taker’s asking for information from me, and then threatening me with jail or a monetary fine if I do not comply. This is coercion in its most blatant form. Although few people have been prosecuted for failure to cooperate with the census, such threats have been federal law since 1790. Does this make for a free country?

I further object to the census because information gathered under the guise of the census has been used by governments at all levels to control the American people in ways unrelated to the census’s original constitutional justification. Although census- takers swear an oath of confidentiality, and census records are not made public for decades, this has never prevented government agencies, such as the Justice Department, the Army, and the IRS, from using census data to their advantage. Even local jurisdictions responsible for code enforcement analyze census data to check compliance with zoning and building regulations. Innocent as the census sounds, its abuse by various agencies of the government once again illustrates Lord Acton’s dictum: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Looking beyond the Constitution, I object to the census because it represents one of the tools in the government’s arsenal of control. Governments count what they want to control and manipulate, and they have done so since the time of the first censuses in ancient Babylonia. In fact, the word itself comes from the Latin “censere” which means “to assess.” The Roman censors who counted Joseph, Mary, and Christ were important public figures charged not only with the guardianship of the public morals but with the official registration of all citizens, the valuation of their property, and the collection of revenue. The role of the census enumerator has changed little over the course of history.

The gathering of statistics and data of a public nature is legitimate in a free society. Therefore, my objection is not to the collection of information, per se, but rather to the coercive manner in which it is collected and to the forceful nature of the institution that gathers it. If some private organization chooses to solicit information from me, I may or may not respond. But regardless of my choice, I will suffer no criminal penalties if I refuse to cooperate.

However, when the state involves itself in the collection of information about its people and their resources, we have the complete antithesis of a free and voluntary society. So until such time as the gathering of public statistics is organized in a free-market fashion, and while our coercive political institutions are responsible for the census, I want nothing to do with it or the census-taker. So please: Count me out!

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    Carl Watner is editor of The Voluntaryist. His most recently published book is I Must Speak Out: The Best of the Voluntaryist, 1982–1999.