The Census and Despotism
"There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus," says St. Luke on why Mary and Joseph found themselves in Bethlehem, "that all the world should be taxed." Joseph had to go to his own city because the tyrannical Roman government was conducting a census. But the information may have been used for more than just taxation. The Roman government's local ruler later decided he wanted to find the Christ child and kill Him.
Did the government make use of census data to find out where the members of the House of David were? We can’t know for sure, although a later Roman despot did. But we can know that Joseph made a huge error in obeying the census takers in the first place. They were up to no good. In fact, another group of religious Jews in Judea decided that they would not comply with the Roman government’s demand to count and tax them. The group was known as the "Zealots" (yes, that’s where the word came from). They saw complying with the census as equivalent to submitting to slavery. Many ended up paying for their principled stand with their lives.
And yet, their resistance arguably made would-be tyrants more cautious. For 10 centuries after Constantine, when feudal Europe was broken up into thousands of tiny principalities and jurisdictions, no central government was in a position to collect data on its citizens. This is one of the many great merits of radically decentralized political systems: There is no central power that controls the population through data gathering and population enumeration.
The only exception in Europe in those years was William the Conqueror who, after 1066, attempted to establish in England a centralized and authoritarian society on the Roman model. That meant, in the first instance, a census. The census was compiled in The Doomesday Book, so named by an Anglo-Saxon monk because it represented the end of the world for English freedom.
A predecessor to today’s tax rolls, it functioned as a hit list for the conquering state to divide property up as it wished. "There was no single hide nor yard of land," read a contemporary account, "nor indeed one ax nor one cow nor one pig was there left out, and not put down on the record." Eventually the attempt to keep track of the population for purposes of taxes led to the Magna Carta, the foundational statement of limits on the state's power.
The Doomesday Book established the precedent for many other attempts at compiling information. But according to Martin Van Creveld (author of The Rise and Decline of the State, 1999), the information-gathering techniques of these times were so primitive, and the governments so decentralized, that the data were largely useless. On the Continent, for example, no government was in the position of demanding a comprehensive census. That began to change in the 16th century, when the nation-state began to gain a foothold against the countervailing power of the church, free cities and local lords. In France, the first modern philosopher of the state, John Bodin, urged that a census be taken to better control the people.
Also in France, writes Voltaire, Louis XIV tried but failed to develop a comprehensive accounting of "the number of inhabitants in each district — nobles, citizens, farm workers, artisans and workmen — together with livestock of all kinds, land of various degrees of fertility, the whole of the regular and secular clergy, their revenues, those of the towns and those of the communities." It turned out that this was just a utopian fantasy. Even if the Sun King could have devised the form, it would have been impossible to force people to surrender all that information.
The first censuses of the 18th century were taken in Iceland and Sweden using depopulation as an excuse. But America after the revolution of 1776 faced no such problem, and the generation that complained of British tax agents knew better than to invest government with the power to collect information on citizens. In the Articles of the Confederation, drafted in the days of full revolutionary liberty, each state had one vote, no matter how many representatives it sent to Congress. There was no demand for a census because the central government, such as it was, had no power to do much at all.
It was with the U.S. Constitution in 1787 that the real troubles began. The document permitted more powers to the federal government than any free person should tolerate (as Patrick Henry argued), and the inclusion of a census was evidence of the problem. The framers added the demand for a census in the interests of fully representing the people in the legislature, they said. They would have two legislative houses, one representing the states and the other the people in the states. For the latter, they would need a head count. Hence, the government would count heads every 10 years.
Why else was a head count needed? Article I, Section 2, included an ominous mention of taxes, recalling not only Caesar Augustus but the whole tyrannical history of using the census to control people: "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct."
The 1790 census seemed innocent enough, but by 1810, matters already were out of control: For the first time, the government started demanding information on occupations. Fortunately for the American people, the records were burned by the British in 1813, leaving hardly a trace for the state to use to expand its power. And yet, the state would not be held back, and the census became ever more intrusive.
The lesson of the history of the U.S. census is this: Any power ceded to a government will be abused, given time. In 1941, for example, Gustav Richter, an aide to Adolf Eichmann, was sent to Romania to gather information about the Jewish population in a census, with the ultimate goal of plotting a mass deportation to the Belzec concentration camp. But Romania cut off all political relations with the Nazis and, as a result, the Jewish population was spared the fate of Jews in Poland and Austria. Just as the Zealots of the first century knew, when a government seeks information on people, it is up to no good.
Today, the long-form of the census asks for details of your life that you would never tell a neighbor or a private business. A total of 52 questions, some outrageously intrusive, appear on it.
Every census is worse than the last. The 1990 census asked for the year of your birth, but the 2000 census wants to know the day and the month, not to mention the race and relation of every person in the house, along with the number of toilets and much more. And what is this information used for? Mostly for social and economic central planning — an activity the government shouldn’t be engaged in at all.
This isn't a biased rendering of the objectives of the census. The Census Bureau itself says, "Information collected in Census 2000 will provide local area data needed for communities to receive federal program funds and for private sector and community planning." You only have to ask yourself what any 18th- or 19th-century liberal would have thought of the idea of "private-sector" and community planning undertaken by the central state.
Indeed, very few Americans trust their government enough to allow it to engage in planning. Consider the incompetent Census Bureau itself. The letters it sent out in advance of the forms put an extra digit in front of the addresses, as the head of the bureau admitted in a Feb. 26 press release, while trying to blame it on someone else. And these are the people we are supposed to trust to gather information on us to plan our lives? No thanks.
The letter from the government says, "Census counts are used to distribute government funds to communities and states for highways, schools, health facilities and many other programs you and your neighbors need." In short, the purpose is no different from that of William the Conqueror's: to redistribute property and exercise power. Clearly, we’ve come a long way from the head-counting function of the census. Moreover, there are quite a few of us out here who don’t believe that we "need" these programs.
What's worse, the point of the original census was not to apportion a fixed number of House members among the states. It was rationally to expand the number of people serving in the House as the population grew. But after the Civil War, the number of House members stopped growing, so there’s not much point to the census at all now—- or at least no purpose consistent with liberty.
Moreover, if a head count were all that was needed, the job could be done by using data from private companies or the U.S. Postal Service. But the census wants more than that. Why? Forget all the official rationales. The real reason the government wants the information is to control the population. The promises that the data won’t be used at your expense is worth the same as all government promises: zippo.
What is a freeman supposed to do when he receives the form in the mail? First, remember that information is the foundational infrastructure of the would-be total state. Without it, the state is at a loss. And then consider whether the costs associated with noncompliance are outweighed by the subjective benefit one receives from joining with all free people in resisting the government's data-collection efforts. Finally, consider the limited purposes for which the Framers sought to use the census, and ask yourself whether the central government of today really can be trusted with knowing what is better kept to yourself.
For many years, voluntary compliance has been falling. In anticipation of this problem, the Census Bureau has been relying on wholly owned sectors of society to propagandize for its campaign. The Sesame Street character named Count von Count is touring public schools to tell the kids to tell their parents to fill out the census, even as more than 1 million census kits have been sent to public schools around the country. Think of it as the state using children to manipulate their parents into becoming volunteers in the civic planning project.
It is a bullish sign for liberty that the government only achieved 65 percent mail-in compliance in 1990. And given the decline in respect for government that characterizes the Clinton era, you can bet it will be even lower today. If you do choose to fill out the census, some commentators have recommended you adhere strictly to the Constitution and admit only how many people live in your household. That such a tactic is considered subversive indicates just how far we’ve come from 18th-century standards of intrusion.
There went out a decree from Clinton Augustus that all the country should fill out the census. But think of this: If Joseph had known what was in store for him, he might have thought twice about taking that long trek to Bethlehem just because the government told him so.
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, edits the daily news site, LewRockwell.com. A version of this article originally ran in Insight Magazine.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.