F.R. Duplantier reporting Behind The Headlines
Week of:
February 27, 2000
Count on the Census to Ask Too Much

F.R. Duplantier

by: F.R. Duplantier

"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."

Cyberscribe Erik Jay of ErikJay.com points out that the first American census takers "went about counting people, asking only for the names of heads of households and the number of people in them. But in a modern census," he observes, "interrogatories delve into Americans' mortgages, pregnancies, language proficiency, work habits, intimate relationships, and indoor plumbing. This intrusiveness is empowered by a federal law making noncompliance punishable by a fine of up to $500," Jay emphasizes. "How did the simple census of 1790 evolve into the invasive non-census of today?" he asks. "How did the elementary 'enumeration' of Article I, Section II, Clause III of the Constitution of the United States become the compulsory categorization of today?"

Jay explains how a simple head count gradually expanded into an inventory of personal assets, associations, and attitudes. "Throughout the early 1800s, the census increased in scope and complexity," he reports. "In addition to including information on manufacturing, agriculture, and foreign trade, by the 1840s the census sought to count and categorize the convicts, the deaf and dumb, and the 'insane and idiots' in American society." Following the creation of the Census Office in the Department of the Interior in 1880, Jay observes, "150 'census supervisor' positions were added to the burgeoning federal bureaucracy and filled by civil servants and political appointees. These supervisors reported to a superintendent appointed by the President," and the census "fell victim to the effects of bureaucratic cronyism and party politics."

Recalling that the turn of the century was a time when "our government began to flex its muscles in the formerly private realms of commerce and industry," Jay notes that the scope of the census expanded accordingly to include "the collection and analysis of information for central planning. By the first decade of the 20th century," he continues, "the once-public listings of 'persons counted' had been replaced by secret reports providing much more than population information. . . ."

Jay argues that "the clear dividing line between the government's desire to know about us and our right to maintain our privacy" has been crossed. "The reason that the original few head-count questions of the 1790 enumeration have been lost amid the queries concerning real estate, employment, and personal lifestyle in the modern census is quite simple," he asserts. "In order for the government to do everything for you, it needs to know everything about you."

Jay points out that "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," he remarks, "the more the central planners wanted and needed to know about the patient." Jay says it's time to reverse that trend, stop government snooping on American citizens, and let people plan their own lives again.

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