Commentary

Civics Lessons in the Census

By Edward L. Hudgins
March 28, 2000
Census Bureau director Kenneth Prewitt says it’s each person’s “civic duty” to fill out the 2000 census form; indeed, he says that the census is “the nation’s first major civics ceremony of the new century.” But a surer sign of civic health might be the sound of millions of Americans ripping up those forms. The current census is a damning indictment of the current political regime.

The Constitution authorizes the federal government to “Enumerate” persons in order to apportion congressional representatives among the states. That implies one need fill out only the first page of the census, which is addressed to “Resident” and asks how many people live at the address. Gender, race and age are irrelevant.

But in the 53 questions in the long form you’re asked about your income (#31-#32), how you get to work (#23), when you leave (#24), how many bathrooms you have (#38) and how much you pay annually for water and sewers (#45).

The first civics lesson of the census is that privacy is of little concern to political elites; your personal business is their business. The second lesson is proclaimed loudly by the Census Bureau. The information is necessary so political elites can redistribute wealth and limit liberty according to their vision of a “good” society. You’re told that filling out the form “helps your community get what it needs.” Census Bureau TV commercials show crowded schools and promise more education funds; they show a waitress forced to take her child to work and promise money for daycare. To control us they must know us. Of course, 50 years ago the federal government took only about 5 percent of the average family’s income, compared to 25 percent today, so families had more control over their expenditures, and less need to ransom their own income from Washington by filling out census forms.

An indication of how political elites view most Americans is found in question #17, which asks whether you have difficulty “learning, remembering, concentrating? Dressing, bathing or getting around inside that home?” The third lesson is that political elites see us as helpless victims who cannot tie our shoes or wipe our noses without their federal programs. In the therapeutic state, they will take care of us, and limit our liberties for our own good.

The fourth lesson is that political elites are obsessed with race. Questions #5, #6 and #10 ask about your race and ethnic origin, give you a long list of choices (11 for Asians) and allow you to mix and match. The collectivists don’t view us as the content of our character but, literally, as the color of our skins or some accident of birth. It is instructive that you’re asked what race you “consider” yourself (it’s not what you are but what you “feel” you are). This puts off until some future date the need for Nuremberg-type laws defining races and requiring DNA tests.

The fifth lesson is that families, churches and other private, civil institutions are to be made subordinate to and enlisted to aid political elites. The Census Bureau is enlisting 90,000 “community partners” to prod and pester the rest of us to fess up to the feds. The bureau is enlisting schools to send children home to harangue their parents and clergy to urge their congregations to bare their souls to bureaucrats. But shouldn’t the 340,000 churches, synagogues and mosques in this country concern themselves with the souls and moral character of their parishioners rather than help the government to rob Peter to pay Paul?

Contrast the regime embodied in the census form with the civil society envisioned by the Constitution. Individuals should have the right to live in peace, as they saw fit, to share their lives with family and friends and to open their hearts to whom they choose. The challenges of life should be met through vibrant civil institutions. Individuals should be equal before the law, regardless of race, religion or ethnic origin. And the role of government officials should be limited to protecting the lives, liberties and property of individuals, not meddling in our affairs and managing our lives as a way of maintaining their positions of power and privilege.

Perhaps a proper response to the census and the regime it seeks to strengthen is found in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus and his crew were held in the cave of the savage Cyclops who “knew nought of justice or of law.” To escape, Odysseus blinded the monster. Today political elites need information about us in order to subject us to their will. We too should blind the beast that is devouring us. A true act of civic virtue would be to not answer the unconstitutional questions in the census.

Edward L. Hudgins is director of regulatory studies at the Cato Institute.