Civilizing the Census Bureau

Civilizing the Census Bureau

Have you ever received a questionnaire from the United States Census Bureau?  If so, you may have noticed the surprising warning: “This report is MANDATORY” (the capitalization is theirs).  This is true.  Under United States Code Title 13, Sections 221 and 224, individuals and businesses “are legally obligated to answer all the questions”.  Failure to comply is considered a criminal infraction, punishable by a fine.  How, in the Land of the Free, can failing to render a free service to the federal government upon demand make you a criminal?

Obviously there is no Constitutional authority for the federal government to compel citizens to complete surveys.  Article 1, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution calls for an “enumeration” of our nation, so that we know how many seats should be in the House of Representatives, and how to proportion any direct taxes among the states.  That is to say, the Constitution calls for a simple head count.  The Census Bureau is entitled to ask, “How many people are in your household?”  But it is not entitled to a response.  In the unlikely circumstance that an American refuses to answer that simple question, the Census Bureau should have no recourse.  Instead, Congress has given it the power designate that American a criminal, and levy a fine.

Nowhere does the Constitution call for, much less demand, answers about:

Some people might object, “It’s just a questionnaire!  It only takes an hour!” – but this isn’t about a questionnaire, or how long it might take to complete one.  It’s about a principal.  A civilized country does not force law-abiding citizens to do things against their will.

America, once first among civilized nations, has now fallen so low that it can make criminals of citizens who don’t have time to complete a survey.  These citizens might only be committing criminal "infractions" that carry minor fines, but is there really an infringement of basic American principles that is so small it can be brushed off?  The famous American revolutionary Patrick Henry once advised the American nation to “guard with jealous attention the public liberty”.  The Census Bureau’s bullying is just one more indication that our nation is failing to heed Henry’s advice.

There is a simple solution here.  Instead of a stick that our nation could never possibly justify, why not a carrot?  If a survey response has value to the nation, and costs a citizen something to provide, then maybe there should be a bounty for it.  Maybe the Census Bureau can offer a small amount of money in fair exchange for what should be a small amount of time.  Where today’s Census Bureau relies on intimidation tactics that smack of fascism, tomorrow’s Census Bureau could instead engage in the sort of voluntary exchange that is the hallmark of a civilized society.

Those familiar with the art of statistics might still object to trading the punishment for a reward, because it could skew the numbers.  Presumably, the more affluent the respondent is, the less motivating the reward would be, and the less likely the response.  As a result of this dynamic, the government could generate a representation of the nation that is skewed toward lower-income demographics.  That is a fair objection on mathematical grounds, but a silly one in the wider context.  What sort of lunatic would seriously propose suspending the very notion of American liberty in exchange for mathematically unbiased survey results?

If the government has a difficult time securing quality survey results, then maybe it should take the next logical step: ask for help.  Rather than paying survey respondents, maybe the government should issue for-bid contracts to collect the data.  There are many American companies that are already in the business of collecting demographic data about Americans.  Their data is incredibly accurate, and collected at extremely low cost online.  They would be able to generate better, cheaper data than the Census Bureau does today.  Maybe the data-collection functions of the Census Bureau need to be privatized, so that our free markets can work their magic.

Of course, we would want to be careful of aligning the interests of government and private data-gathering companies.  Many of these companies have access to a great deal of information about individual Americans, some of which is sensitive.  We already have enough trouble with our government gathering more data about Americans than it lawfully should.  Therefore, we shouldn’t only require the government to refuse extraneous data if these private companies offer it.  We should also legally prohibit these contracting companies from delivering data that isn’t explicitly called for by their contract.  We want to motivate both parties to follow the rules.

Mandating survey responses was fundamentally wrong in the first place, and becomes increasingly senseless as our nation evolves technologically.  It’s time to stop making criminals of Americans who aren’t interested in doing free work for the federal government.  Let’s repeal the survey mandates and revamp the Census Bureau to be more modern, efficient and civilized.