‘Useful’ Idiots and the American Community Survey

Since 2005, the Census Bureau has administered a set of probing questions to a large random sample of Americans each year. It’s called the American Community Survey, participation is mandatory, and the penalty for failing to comply is a fine of up to $5,000. The questions are so prying (“Do you have trouble bathing?”, “When do you leave for work in the morning?”) that many people find it hard to believe the government would have the temerity to demand answers to them, and so conclude that it must be a scam operated by unscrupulous con artists. Others simply lack confidence in the federal government’s promise to keep such information confidential (perhaps not surprising when it has shown itself incapable or disinclined to keep its mouth shut about even life-and-death anti-terrorism operations.)

The anti-ACS backlash has garnered the attention of some in Congress. The House has voted 232 to 190 to eliminate the survey altogether and Sen. Rand Paul has introduced legislation in the Senate to make it voluntary. They argue that it is inappropriate for the state to compel citizens to divulge such personal details, and that these questions are in no way required to fulfill the constitutional role of the Census, which is to apportion political representation based on population counts.

These bills have consternated a great many people from New York Times economics reporters and Forbes.com contributors, to associate editors for Bloomberg Businessweek and multitudes in the left-of-center blogosphere. Their counter-argument is fairly simple: this information is useful both to the state and to select private corporations and therefore the state should have the right to compel citizens to divulge it.

That so many people think this is a proper basis for determining the legitimacy of state powers is the most compelling evidence I have yet seen contradicting the Flynn Effect.

It would undeniably be useful for law enforcement officials to have finger prints, photos, and DNA samples for every person in the United States, and to track their movements at all times using GPS devices. And it would surely be useful to the medical community if citizens were randomly and forcibly assigned to participate in drug trials. Nevertheless, even ardent believers in the beneficence of government must be able to see that these would not be desirable practices in a free society.

Americans rightly expect to live their lives with a reasonable level of privacy. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects them from government searches unless there is some compelling reason for them. But the reasons for making the ACS mandatory are not at all compelling. Medical and social science researchers manage to deal with their inability to forcibly assign subjects to treatment and control groups. Political pollsters manage to produce reasonable forecasts without being able to compel citizens to reveal how they will vote. And even when government _is_ in possession of all the necessary and relevant data, it quite frequently makes idiotic decisions anyway—so it isn’t even clear that these ACS data would necessarily lead to more effective government programs.

At the very least the ACS should not be mandatory. It probably shouldn’t exist at all.