From census to non-census

Part 2 of 2: Down for the count

By Erik Jay
web posted January 31, 2000

During the early decades of the 20th century, the Bureau of the Census managed to stake out its bureaucratic turf, justify increased budget allocations, and consolidate power through political alliances. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt brought his interventionist philosophy to Washington, D.C. in January, 1933, the Bureau of the Census was ready to provide grist for the mills of the New Deal.

According to Scott in "Census USA", Roosevelt began "the peaceful revolution which...brought all parts of the federal government under new direction" and managed to convince an extraordinary number of Americans "that the welfare and security of the people [were] the accepted responsibility" of the state. Naturally, the concomitant redistribution of wealth, control of wages and prices, and regulation of business would proceed more smoothly with central plans constructed from statistics and analyses supplied by the Bureau of the Census.

Roosevelt's appointee as Director of the Bureau, William Lane Austin, had an address book full of politicians and professors who would soon become plenipotentiaries in his activist agency. For his assistant director, Austin brought in Dr. Stuart Rice, president of the American Statistical Association and a proponent of scientific social engineering. Rice proceeded to increase the number of professional and scientific employees at the Bureau six-fold and initiate additional census studies (called "surveys") between decennial years.

In her chronicle of the Bureau's New Deal years, Scott reports with evident approval the fact that leading populists, progressives, and socialists of the era were pleased with FDR's attempts to hot-wire the engine of capitalism with plans based on "scientific studies" -- many of which, of course, were themselves based on census data. Scott admonishes her readers that "the capitalist machine is not automatic [and] man must watch and control it" -- then quotes a John Maynard Keynes letter to President Roosevelt in which the economist praises FDR for trying to "mend the evils of our condition by reasoned experiment." Keynes goes on to tell the President that, if the experiments succeed, "new and bolder methods will be tried everywhere, and we may date the first chapter of a new economic era from your accession to office..."

From the end of Roosevelt's reign until Scott wrote her book in the late 1960s, each new presidential administration had the Bureau of the Census concentrate on three main tasks:

(1) the ongoing modernization of its information systems, which quite literally have metamorphosed from hand-crank adding machines to supercomputers;

(2) the production of more numerous and more sophisticated abstracts of data in nearly every possible permutation, which can then be provided to businesses for marketing purposes and, naturally, to other agencies of government; and

(3) the efficient integration of requests for new or updated information into decennial censuses and interim surveys.

By the time "Census USA" was published in 1968, social and economic engineers had already convinced the majority of Americans that big government was here to stay.

Down for the Count

After two centuries and 21 censuses, we've arrived at the clear dividing line between the government's desire (not its right) to know about us, and our right (if we so desire) to maintain our privacy, a thin line underscoring the word "compulsion". There is opposition to the compulsory census from all points on America's political spectrum, but there is not yet sufficient support in Congress for remedial legislation. (In 1976, the House of Representatives voted 248 to 140 to abolish all civil and criminal penalties for refusal to answer census questions, but the bill died in the Senate.)

Political figures of such philosophical diversity as conservative Republican Strom Thurmond, 1988 Libertarian Presidential candidate and current Republican Congressman Ron Paul, and liberal Democrat George McGovern have spoken out against the compulsory nature of the modern census. McGovern, a man not normally associated with the principles of limited government, summed up well the Constitutionalist ideal of individual liberty vis-à-vis government information gathering: "There may be a legitimate purpose to be served by question in the census, but I can think of none that surpasses the right of each individual citizen to be secure against government intrusion into his private affairs. Certainly the decision whether to answer inquiring government beyond numerical count should be left to the individual."

The reason that the original few head-count questions of the 1790 enumeration have been lost amid the queries concerning real estate value, employment, and personal lifestyle in the modern census is quite simple: In order for the government to do everything for you, it needs to know everything about you. Sadly, this justification for governmental intrusion into private affairs is accepted today by a majority of Americans of all ages, from both major political parties, in every region of the country.

Two fundamental lessons in liberty emerge from the study of the mutant census:

(1) that a collectivist state, whether democratic or despotic, cannot survive without intimate information about its people with which to design and administer its central plans; and

(2) that the accumulation of such information will inevitably lead a free society into collectivism, as politicians both altruistic and Machiavellian justify regulation, intervention, and social programming for the amelioration of innumerable slights, plights, and injustices, real or imagined.

Over the last 200 years, the U.S. government has accumulated more and more information on the American people and their activities, while politicians and special interest groups have used the data to perform social surgeries, extract personal and political favors, and market government-subsidized products and services to American consumers. But the more they operated on society, the more the central planners wanted and needed to know about the patient. Thus began the vicious cycle: more data leading to more programs, more programs generating more data, which all leads to still more programs producing even more data, and so on.

According to the cliché, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. But in the dossiers of an unrestrained state, a little knowledge can be downright deadly. With questionable legislation but unquestioned police power behind it, the Bureau of the Census continues to pry into people's lives and add to the federal government's store of knowledge about American citizens.

But considering the mounting Congressional opposition to using obviously politicized "scientific sampling" techniques to augment an actual enumeration, and Americans' increasing awareness of government excesses, census bureaucrats might encounter growing resistance as they put the finishing touches on their plans for the first census of the new millennium.

In fact, they can count on it.

Erik Jay is editor of "What Next? The Internet Journal of Contentious Persiflage" which you can subscribe to by visiting

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