Mises Daily

Refusing to Be Counted

'The Census Taker' (1940) by Norman Rockwell

I returned home from a shopping excursion a few weeks ago to find a “notice of visit” from the US Census Bureau affixed to my front door. I had been expecting such a notice for some time because, unlike my friends, I had not received a census form in the mail. A few days later a census worker arrived at my door, and I was ready to politely present her with my refusal to answer her questions — a response to the census I had decided to make months earlier when I learnt the census was taking place.

Libertarians who consistently oppose the use of aggression and who recognize the inherently aggressive nature of the state are continually faced with dilemmas over whether to comply with state dictates and how best to oppose them if they choose to. All of the available options involve costs and compromises.

One may simply refuse to comply and face the financial and legal consequences of doing so. Thoreau — along with later adherents of his philosophy such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Junior — was an advocate of such peaceful noncompliance, writing,

Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison … the only house in a slave-state in which a free man can abide with honor. If any think that their influence would be lost there, and their voices no longer afflict the ear of the State, that they would not be as an enemy within its walls, they do not know by how much truth is stronger than error, nor how much more eloquently and effectively he can combat injustice who has experienced a little in his own person. Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.[1]

A second approach is to flee and seek refuge in a country whose impositions seem less burdensome. Escape has long been a popular choice of those seeking to avoid the brutality of war, such as the estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Americans who moved to Canada during the US invasion and occupation of Vietnam — or, more recently, Americans wishing to avoid redeployment to Iraq.[2] There are many costs to leaving one’s country, including the loss of home and separation from friends and family, plus punitive taxation of assets.[3]

Finally, the libertarian can comply, recognizing that while submission may aid the state in its various aggressive activities, the burden of guilt does not fall upon the libertarian but upon those who tacitly or explicitly accept the legitimacy of the state. As Manuel Lora contends, libertarians should not be called upon to be martyrs in the cause of liberty:

The problems that libertarians face — some trivial and others quite serious — are moral hazards created by the existence of the state. Given that we do not legitimize state action we are not culpable of the aggression that it causes. … Nor does [libertarianism] require us to drastically reduce our already limited lives. … [L]iberty and the ideals of freedom, peace and voluntary exchange are just that — ideals. They are meant to guide our actions towards whatever ends we might chose in life. They are not necessarily ends themselves. Do not martyr yourself. Stay away from the libertarian sacrificial altar.[4]

My own view is something of a compromise between the positions advocated by Thoreau and Lora. Where possible, I seek to avoid compliance with state dictates and interaction with state agencies. For instance, when costs are comparable I always prefer a private shipper, such as FedEx or UPS, to the postal service.

However, when the state employs draconian punishments to compel submission, I will comply. For example, I pay my taxes because I do not wish to suffer the same fate as Irwin Schiff, a peaceful tax protestor who was sentenced to 13 years in prison for an entirely nonviolent “crime.”

In the case of the census, I had considered the consequences of noncompliance and deemed them tolerable, so I decided to refuse to answer any questions. It was thus that I opened my door to speak with the census worker waiting on my porch.

A Visit from the Census Bureau

I opened my door and the census worker informed me that she worked for the Census Bureau and needed a few minutes of my time to answer some questions. I asked her what the consequences were for not answering, and she replied that it was “illegal” to refuse but that there were no consequences. It was immediately clear she was ignorant of the provisions covering noncompliance with the census, which I read when I had originally received the notice of visit. According to US code, anyone refusing to answer the census “shall be fined not more than $100.”[5]

“In 1943 the Census Bureau divulged data that was used to identify Japanese Americans, who were then confined in concentration camps for the remaining duration of World War II — a fact that was suppressed by the bureau for over 50 years.”

The worker then attempted to convince me of the importance of the census and reassure me that any data collected would remain private. I explained to her that my refusal to answer was not from a fear that my personal information would be divulged by the Census Bureau, but because I rejected any state action in principle due to the state’s inherently aggressive nature. She seemed confused by my reason but dutifully noted that I had refused to answer.

She left my house after giving me a rather ominous warning that I was likely to face further “harassment” from census workers in the near future.

The threat of harassment was not idle, either. According to constitutional attorney John Whitehead,

Published and privately reported accounts of similar encounters between American citizens and government enumerators suggest that some Census workers are adopting an aggressive and harassing modus operandi.[6]

Reports of harassment include census workers looking through private mail and forcing their way into private residences. Whitehead further reports that 1,800 census takers employed by the Census Bureau had criminal records, a fact that was only discovered after they were hired.

It was with this knowledge in mind that I waited, with some trepidation, for a second visit from the Census Bureau.

A Second Visit from the Census Bureau

A week after the first visit paid me by the Census Bureau, a second worker arrived at my door. While I did not feel threatened by her at any time, she was far more insistent and obnoxious than her predecessor, harrying me long after I had made it clear that I did not wish to answer any questions. The manner in which she attempted to convince me of the importance of complying with the census and the reasoning she used were deeply revealing of the ideologically statist thinking that is pervasive today.

After I informed the worker that I had previously refused to answer any questions on principle — and thus that I would refuse to answer her questions — she warned me that participation in the census was “mandatory.” I replied that I was aware of the potential consequences and still did not wish to comply, whereupon she switched strategies, trying persuasion by utilitarian arguments. The worker explained that without the census the government would not be able to correctly allocate its funds to the various states. Of course, the government has no funds, but only that which it violently appropriates from the population, and I explained that such violent redistribution of private property was entirely immoral.

Like the first worker who visited my house, the second was confused about the aggressive nature of the state. I explained to her that, as Ludwig von Mises observed, all government action ultimately resorts to the use or threat of aggression. Mises wrote,

It is important to remember that government interference always means either violent action or the threat of such action. Government is in the last resort the employment of armed men, of policemen, gendarmes, soldiers, prison guards, and hangmen. The essential feature of government is the enforcement of its decrees by beating, killing, and imprisoning.[7]

The worker was apparently confused by the basis of my principled rejection and told me that while other government agencies might employ aggression, the conducting of the census did not require it. She went on, in a vain attempt to placate me, saying that all the data collected was strictly confidential and that it was not even shared with other government agencies. She emphasized that not once in the history of the nation had data from the census been shared with other government agencies.

“It is merely the widespread recognition of the illegitimacy of the state that would cause it to dissolve.”

This was, in fact, a bald-faced lie. In 1943 the Census Bureau divulged data that was used to identify Japanese Americans, who were then confined in concentration camps for the remaining duration of World War II — a fact that was suppressed by the bureau for over 50 years.[8] More recently, the Census Bureau provided specially tabulated statistics to the Department of Homeland Security to help identify Arab Americans.

In a final, exasperated attempt to convince me of the importance of the census, the worker rhetorically asked me whether I used the road in front of my house, and triumphantly added that without the census — and the accompanying redistribution of purloined property — there would be no public schools and America’s children would grow up illiterate. The worker was confusing, as the great 19th-century French economist Frederic Bastiat explained, the distinction between government and society, thinking that if the state did not provision for some service, it could not exist at all. Bastiat wrote,

Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.[9]

census form

I explained to the worker that, while I did use the road, I did not approve of the unjustified manner in which its construction was funded, and I added that roads could be provided peacefully by the market. As Walter Block explains, private roads would not only be more efficient and result in fewer automobile fatalities and catastrophic bridge failures, but they would also be morally preferable to a statist road system.[10]

I further explained that the public school system in America was the cause of, rather than the solution to, the scourge of illiteracy that exists in the country. According to the National Adult Literacy Survey, over 40 million Americans read at the lowest level of proficiency.[11] And while funding for public education has doubled in real terms over the last 15 years,[12] there has been little discernable increase in the reading proficiency of the average, 8th-grade, American student — which remains at an abysmally low level.[13]

I also endeavored to explain that, contrary to the widely believed canard that the public school system was instituted to educate America’s youth, early proponents of public schooling openly admitted that their true purpose was to forcibly inculcate children with an abiding devotion to the state. As Edward Ross, a progressive sociologist, wrote in his 1901 treatise Social Control: A Survey of the Foundations of Order,

To collect little plastic lumps of human dough from private households and shape them on the social kneading-board. … And so it happens that the role of the schoolmaster in the social economy is just beginning.[14]

John Swett, sometimes referred to as the father of California’s public school system, wrote,

Cast your eye over the map of our country to-day, and show me a section of States from which men shed their blood most freely in battle for the defense of the Union, and I will show you that such States have also expended the most money for public schools …. [The public school system’s] crowning achievement is that they have educated an army of half a million of men who have volunteered to sustain the national flag with a bayonet.[15]

Not only were early proponents of public schooling open about their desire to shape children to be complaisant to a statist social order, they were equally open about their desire to forcibly carry out their agenda. An article from the Massachusetts Teacher, which appeared in 1851, concludes,

With the old not much can be done; but with their children, the great remedy is education. The rising generation must be taught as our own children are taught. We say must be, because in many instances this can only be accomplished by coercion. … Nothing can operate effectually here but stringent legislation, thoroughly carried out by an efficient police; the children must be gathered up and forced into school, and those who resist or impede this plan, whether parents or priests, must be held accountable and punished.[16]

Clearly there are some deep flaws to the shibboleth that public schooling was benevolently instituted to improve literacy among America’s children.

Recognizing that her utilitarian arguments had failed to persuade me of the beneficence of publicly funded roads or schools, the census worker entreated me one last time to “at least” tell her how many people lived in my house. When I steadfastly refused, she lingered on my porch for a few moments, glowering at me, before noting my refusal on her census sheet and leaving my house.


Libertarians are often confronted by the difficult choice of how their principled rejection of state aggression should manifest itself in practice. There is no perfect solution, and all potential choices involve costs and compromises. My own approach has been to avoid compliance and interactions with the state when I believe the cost to myself and my family is tolerable.

The census is an example of a government program that I refused to comply with, knowing that I could be fined for doing so. While the census is not the most barbaric or intrusive activity conducted by the state, it is crucial for the state’s most pernicious behavior and its defining characteristic — namely, the massive appropriation and redistribution of private property.

The conducting of the census itself also consumes considerable tax revenue. The Census Bureau spent billions of dollars employing 3.8 million workers to conduct the 2010 census — workers who were diverted from the productive private sector and put to the purpose of prying into the lives of millions of American families, many of whom wished to be left in peace.[17]



My aim in refusing to participate in the census was twofold: to explicitly withdraw my consent — or, as Ayn Rand called it, “the sanction of the victim”[18] — and to use my experience as a starting point to explain the aggressive nature of the state to others, including the census workers. For it is merely the widespread recognition of the illegitimacy of the state that would cause it to dissolve. As Etienne la Boettie exhorted in his brilliant essay Discours de la Servitude Volontaire,

Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break into pieces.[19]

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[1] Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience (Forgotten Books, 2008), p. 22.

[2] Judy Keen, “In Canada Once More, US Troops Fleeing a War,” USA Today, May 28, 2010.

[3] See Lew Rockwell, “Renouncing American Citizenship,” Mises Daily, April 28, 2010.

[4] Manuel Lora, “Against Libertarian Martyrdom,” LewRockwell.com, February 14, 2008.

[5] United States Code, Title 13 (Census), chapter 7 (Offenses and Penalties), sub chapter II.

[6] John Whitehead, “Troubling Reports of Census Taker Abuses on the Uptick,” Huffington Post, May 24, 2010.

[7] Ludwig von Mises, Economic Freedom and Interventionism (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006), p. 15.

[8] Teresa Watanabe, “In 1943 Census Released Japanese American’s Data,” LA Times, March 31, 2007.

[9] Frederic Bastiat, The Law.

[10] Walter Block, The Privatization of Roads and Highways (Auburn: The Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2009).

[11] Irwin Kirsch et al., Adult Literacy in America (National Center for Education Statistics, 2002).Download PDF

[12] “Digest of Education Statistics” (National Center for Education Statistics), table 27.

[13] “Learner Outcomes” (National Center for Education Statistics), table A-9-2.

[14] Edward Ross, Social Control: A Survey of the Foundations of Order (Transaction Publishers, 2009 [Macmillan, 1901]), p. 166.

[15] John Swett, Public Education in California: Its Origin and Development (American Book Company, 1911), pp. 143–146.

[16] W.M.D. Swan (ed.), Massachusetts Teacher 4, no. 10 (1851).Download PDF

[17] “2010 Census by the Numbers: Door-to-Door Followup,” US Census Bureau News, April 30, 2010.Download PDF

[18] Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, Dutton 1992, p.461.

[19] Etienne de la Boettie, Discours de la Servitude Volontaire (c. 1552).

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