More Government Intrusion

Have you received a notice in the mail to complete the Bureau of the Census’s “American Community Survey” online? It comes with a warning that failure to do so subjects you to penalties provided under some public law, which no Member of Congress likely read before voting in favor of it.

The survey combines questions that you answered for the last decennial population census, information from your income tax return and other detailed questions about your place of residence and every member of your household. The questionnaire took me about 45 minutes to complete. I wish I had not started it.

How many rooms does your home contain, including bathrooms? How much could you sell it for today? What is the amount of your monthly rental or mortgage payment and does that payment include property taxes and insurance for fire and flood? How much do you pay annually for electricity, water and sewer service? How much did each member of your household earn last year and what were the sources of that income, including welfare payments, if any? What is each person’s ethnic origin (choose from a list of about 20 possibilities or enter something else)? What are the dates of birth for each member of the household (from which information the form conveniently calculates ages)? Is anyone disabled, blind or mentally incapable of holding down a job? Is anyone not currently employed searching for a job?

I’m sure that I have forgotten some of the questions already. But be forewarned that you are required to disclose to the Bureau of the Census private information that I thought already was known to the NSA. And that information goes far beyond the constitutional provision (Article I, section 2.3), allowing for an “enumeration” of the population every ten years, beginning in 1790, for the purpose of apportioning seats in the U. S. House of Representatives.

I wrote a column after the 2010 Census of Population calling it the most expensive one in history, a record set in part because of the bureaucratic failure to replace paper forms with some sort of electronic data collection process. I am not so sure now that governmental collection of information online is such a good idea. Because the costs of paper and postage are substantially lower with online data collection, bureaucrats are able to ask many more questions than they did in the past, while studiously ignoring the opportunity costs of the citizens who are required to respond.

On the other hand, maybe the penalty for noncompliance with the American Community Survey is the same as the one imposed for removing the tag from your mattress.

William F. Shughart II is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice at Utah State University, past President of the Southern Economic Association, and editor of the Independent book, Taxing Choice.
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