Power & Market

The Bolivian National Census: A Stark Reminder of the Perils of Unchecked Government Power

The Bolivian National Census: A Stark Reminder of the Perils of Unchecked Government Power

On Saturday March 23rd Bolivia held its national census, an exercise that is a routine in data collection in most countries around the world. And the recent census in the Andean nation is just a reminder of what lurks beneath the surface of this autocratic survey. While purportedly aimed at gathering demographic and socioeconomic data, the census raises profound questions about individual liberties, privacy rights, economic efficiency, and the absolute waste of resources.

Bolivia’s census, like many others worldwide consists of extensive data collection conducted by the government. In the case of Bolivia, it is done every 10 years, and it is within the jurisdiction of the central government to do. Asking questions from the names of all the household members, their citizenship status, where they go if they have a medical emergency, how many people live in their house, how many rooms it has and many more questions bordering the statistical demographics to outright invasive.

The sheer scope of information gathered poses a grave threat to personal autonomy. The principle of limited government becomes a casualty in the name of statistical accuracy, as citizens are compelled to divulge intimate details under the guise of national interest. And the Bolivian government goes even further enforcing its power over the citizens as during the census they activated an “Auto de Buen Gobierno” or a good government order, a series of restrictions during the day of the census to “guarantee” its execution.

The specifics of this order are equivalent to a strict curfew, suspending all private and public activities from Friday to Sunday (with exception of emergency services), the prohibition of alcohol consumption in public or in private, prohibition of circulation on the streets, and curfew in which all citizens must stay in their homes during the entirety of the census day. In fact, 1,994 people were arrested, 154 apprehended and 270 vehicles were retained for breaching this normative. Revealing the lengths that a government is willing to go to retrieve the information that its bureaucratic system wants.

History serves as a cautionary tale of governments wielding census data as a political tool. Bolivia's census results may be manipulated to serve the interests of those in power, whether through gerrymandering electoral districts or allocating resources to favored constituencies. The sanctity of democratic principles is undermined when census data is weaponized to perpetuate incumbency or suppress dissent.

From ancient history back in ancient Mesopotamia, where clay tablets detail population counts for taxation purposes and ancient Rome, where the census served as a means of social stratification and military conscription. Citizens were categorized based on wealth and status, with the census forming the basis for taxation and the allocation of state resources. To the 20th century, when census-taking took on new dimensions in the age of mass surveillance and totalitarian regimes. In Nazi Germany, the census of 1939 facilitated the identification and persecution of minority groups, paving the way for the Holocaust. Similarly, the Soviet Union's census operations were used to monitor and control populations, stifling dissent, and perpetuating state dominance.

Even in democratic societies, census data has been susceptible to manipulation for political ends. A tool that in the constitution of 1880 was a simple attribution of the municipalities to learn demographic data is now, in article 146 of today’s constitution, a factor that determines the number of seats that each department (the equivalent of a state in Bolivian political divisions) has in the legislative chambers. Information that could potentially shift or strengthen the position of determined parties in legislative power. And not only are the parliamentary seats in stake, but the census will also determine the distribution of resources and tax revenue that is allocated depending on the reported population of each municipality.

Also, there is an economic burden taken for the execution of a nationwide census. Not only did the census that had a cost of between 68 million and 84 million US dollars. But it also paralyzed all activities nationwide for 24 hours. A lot of resources and opportunity costs are lost for a census that has questionable results.

A phenomenon that was obvious for anyone that was in Bolivia during the day of the census was the massive transportation of people to other municipalities, provinces, or even different departments. There are multiple reasons for this, one is fear, fear of losing your property, Law 1715 (perhaps one of the most controversial and abominable laws in Bolivia) creates a situation in which expropriation of agrarian property proceeds due to a lack of public utility or when it does not accomplish an economic-social function. In other words the famous socialist revolutionary axiom “La tierra es de quien la trabaja” (the land belongs to those who work it) is regretfully present in the Bolivian context. Therefore, many people travel to their property, even if they do not live there, to make presence and make sure that the government does not have their land as inhabited in written records.

The second main reason for hundreds of people to relocate just for the census is to ensure that their native towns have in record more people than the actual day to day population, to make sure that those municipalities receive higher resources, either through bribes or threats from their local authorities. “I have to go to the census there because the authorities have told us that if we don't go, they will take away our land for five years. I mean, we're not going to be able to plant or anything,” said a testimony from a merchant that lives in the city of El Alto and was traveling to his native town.

Another great polemic was created by the fact that the census was going to be taken by pencil. A notion that could pass as irrelevant in other countries but that in Bolivia reflects the mistrust in the bureaucracy, after all if the surveys are taken by pencil what stops the census taker from erasing the answers and changing them to their liking or the liking of the politicians of turn. A fear that apparently was in place, for there have already been complaints of census takers erasing data from census ballots.

The truth that most citizens understand is that whatever data comes from the census will not be trustworthy. Yet, it will be an official set of information utilized by government to intervene with the market in any way it can. In the essay “Statistics: Achilles' Heel of Government” Murray N. Rothbard says:

Certainly, only by statistics, can the federal government make even a fitful attempt to plan, regulate, control, or reform various industries — or impose central planning and socialization on the entire economic system… Statistics, to repeat, are the eyes and ears of the interventionists: of the intellectual reformer, the politician, and the government bureaucrat. Cut off those eyes and ears, destroy those crucial guidelines to knowledge, and the whole threat of government intervention is almost completely eliminated.

As Bolivia's recent census fades from the headlines, its implications linger as a stark reminder of the perils of unchecked government power. Beyond the veneer of statistical accuracy lies a fundamental question of liberty—one that demands our unwavering attention. In critiquing Bolivia's census, we shed light on the hidden costs and dangers of government overreach. It stands as a warning for those who value individual freedom and economic prosperity, reaffirming our commitment to the timeless principles of liberty and self-determination.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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