Erik A. Johnson, a writer and publishing consultant in southern California, is the former Managing Editor of The New American magazine.

In 1790, David Howe of Hancock County, Maine, accepted the responsibility for counting the number of people in an area of his state loosely defined by such natural boundaries as foothills, forests, and streams. When he had finished, he posted in several public places his list of the “Whole Number of Persons Counted” (9,549), naming only heads of households and offering as his only Statistical analysis the fact that he had included in the enumeration inhabitants of “some isles” not part of “named towns.” In a letter to the federal government which accompanied his simple report, Howe opined that he had adequately discharged his duties merely by doing the best possible job under the circumstances.

President Washington would have been quite satisfied with Howe’s work on that first Federal census, inasmuch as his own expectations about its scope and accuracy were quite low. Even before the effort was undertaken, Washington had written that “one thing is certain: our real numbers will exceed, greatly, the official returns of them; because the religious scruples of some, would not allow them to give in their lists; the fears of others that it was intended as a foundation of a tax induced them to conceal or diminish theirs; and thro’ the indolence of the people, and the negligence of many of the [census-takers] numbers are omitted.”

The bicentennial census of 1990, on the other hand, is being administered by bureaucrats who have much higher expectations for its results. By amassing data on farms, factories, commerce, communities, institutions, and individuals, the United States government can better manage the myriad programs which seek to fund and administer the needs of the nation and its people. This, at least, was the message of the massive national advertising campaign of early 1990, which exhorted Americans to fill out census questionnaires with between 13 and 58 more questions than are necessary for a straightforward enumeration.

In 1790, David Howe simply went about counting people, asking only for the names of heads of households and the number of people in them. But in 1990, in addition to requesting basic name and address information, Bureau of the Census interrogatories delved into Americans’ mortgages, pregnancies, language proficiency, work habits, intimate relationships, and indoor plumbing, empowered by a Federal law that makes noncompliance punishable by a fine of up to $500. How did the simple census of 1790 evolve into the invasive census of today? How did the elementary “enumeration” of Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution become the compulsory categorization of today?

An Insider’s View of the Census

Despite its big-government bias, Ann Herbert Scott’s Census U.S.A.: Fact Finding for the American People, 1790-1970 (New York: The Seabury Press, 1968) is perhaps the best book on the history of the U.S. census. Scott, who worked as an enumerator in the agricultural census of 1964, acknowledges in her book that the Bureau of the Census provided “working headquarters and enthusiastic assistance” while she was writing Census U.S.A. in the late 1960s.

Yet, despite the fact that it often reads like a press release for government “information gathering agencies,” Census U.S.A. is a well-researched and comprehensive work. Moreover, the book assembles and organizes a great deal of information from many disparate sources. But most important, because it was written by a professional amanuensis for the welfare state, Census U.S.A. offers not only historical facts but insight into the way the census is being used to justify expansive government.

At the Constitutional Convention, Scott explains correctly, it was determined after much debate that a single head-count for the purposes of apportioning representatives and direct taxes made the most sense: The states would not be tempted to arrive at a fatter figure for the former and a leaner one for the latter. “It was the practical problem of balancing power—rather than a scientific interest in obtaining statistics on the people—that gave birth to the census,” Scott writes. It wasn’t long, however, before politicians and bureaucrats began to expand the meaning and the manner of the decennial census to meet the growing “needs” of a growing government.

Throughout the early 1800s, the census increased in scope and complexity. 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. Scott notes that Martin Van Buren, who supervised the 1830 census and later became the nation’s eighth President, was an early proponent of a strong executive branch and supported broad governmental investigation of American society through ever more scientific and specific census questions. For the first nine censuses, incidentally, information was collected by U.S. Marshals and their special deputies.

Legislation passed in 1879-80 created a Census Office in the Department of the Interior and took census responsibilities away from the U.S. Marshals. Soon thereafter, 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, which serves to explain why the census process in the last two decades of the 1800s fell victim to the effects of bureaucratic cronyism and party politics. In 1902, the Bureau of the Census received its present name and permanent status in the Federal bureaucracy.

By the end of the 19th century—about the time that our government began to flex its muscles in the formerly private realms of commerce and industry—the purpose of the census was clearly not enumeration but the collection and analysis of information for central planning. By the first decade of the 20th century—when our once-isolationist nation began to be enamored of its new military strength and the trappings of empire—the once-public listings of “persons counted” had been replaced by secret reports providing much more than population information to a federal government interested in more than simple statistics.

New Deal, New Powers

During the early decades of the 20th century, the Bureau of the Census managed to stake out its bureaucratic turf, justify increased budget allocations, and consolidate power through political alliances. When Franklin Roosevelt brought his interventionist philosophy to Washington in 1932, the Bureau of the Census was ready to provide grist for the mills of the New Deal.

According to Scott in Census U.S.A., Roosevelt began “the peaceful revolution which . . . brought all parts of the federal government under new direction” and managed to convince an extraordinary number of Americans “that the welfare and security of the people [were] the accepted responsibility” of the state. Naturally, the concomitant redistribution of wealth, control of wages and prices, and regulation of business would proceed more smoothly with central plans constructed from statistics and analyses supplied by the Bureau of the Census.

Roosevelt’s appointee as Director of the Bureau, William Lane Austin, had an address book full of politicos and professors who would soon become plenipotentiaries in his activist agency. For his assistant director, Austin brought in Dr. Stuart Rice, president of the American Statistical Association and a proponent of scientific social engineering. Rice proceeded to increase the number of professional and scientific employees at the Bureau six- fold and initiate additional census studies (called “surveys”) between decennial years.

In her chronicle of the Bureau’s New Deal years, Scott reports with evident approval the fact that leading populists, progressives, and socialists of the era were pleased with FDR’s attempts to hot-wire the engine of capitalism with plans based on “scientific studies”—many of which, of course, were based on census data. Scott admonishes her readers that “the capitalist machine is not automatic . . . man must watch and control it”—then quotes a John Maynard Keynes letter to President Roosevelt in which the economist praises FDR for trying to “mend the evils of our condition by reasoned experiment.” Keynes goes on to tell the President that, if the experiments succeed, “new and bolder methods will be tried everywhere, and we may date the first chapter of a new economic era from your accession to office . . . .”

From the end of Roosevelt’s reign until Scott wrote her book in the late 1960s, each new Administration had the Bureau of the Census concentrate on three main tasks:

(1) the ongoing modernization of its information systems, which quite literally have metamorphosed from hand-crank adding machines to state-of-the-art computers;

(2) the production of more numerous and more sophisticated abstracts of data in nearly every possible permutation, which can then be provided to businesses for marketing purposes and, naturally, to other agencies of government; and

(3) the efficient integration of requests for new or updated information into decennial censuses and interim surveys.

By the time Census U.S.A. was published in 1968, social and economic engineers had already convinced the majority of Americans that big government was here to stay.

Down for the Count

After two centuries and 21 censuses, we’ve arrived at the clear dividing line between the government’s desire (not its right) to know about us and our right (if we so desire) to maintain our privacy, a thin line underscoring the word “compulsion.” There is opposition to the compulsory census from all points on America’s political spectrum, but there is not yet sufficient support in Congress for remedial legislation. (In 1976, the House of Representatives voted 248 to 140 to abolish all civil and criminal penalties for refusal to answer census questions, but the bill died in the Senate.)

Political figures of such philosophical diversity as conservative Republican Strom Thurmond, 1988 Libertarian Party Presidential candidate Run Paul, and liberal Democrat George McGovern have spoken out against the compulsory nature of the modern census. McGovern, a man not normally associated with the principles of limited government, summed up well the Constitutionalist ideal of individual liberty vis-à-vis government information gathering: “There may be a legitimate purpose to be served by questions in the census, but I can think of none that surpasses the right of each individual citizen to be secure against government intrusion into his private affairs. Certainly the decision whether to answer inquiring government beyond numerical count should be left to the individual.”

The reason that the original few head-count questions of the 1790 enumeration have been lost amid the queries concerning real estate value, employment, and personal lifestyle in the modern census is quite simple: In order for the government to do everything for you, it needs to know everything about you. Sadly, this justification for governmental intrusion into private affairs is accepted today by a majority of Americans of all ages, from both major political parties, in every region of the country.

Two fundamental lessons in liberty emerge from the study of the mutant census:

(1) that a collectivist state, whether democratic or totalitarian, cannot survive without intimate information about its people with which to design and administer its central plans; and

(2) that the accumulation of such information will inevitably lead a free society into collectivism, as politicians both altruistic and Machiavellian justify regulation, intervention, and social programming for the amelioration of innumerable slights, plights, and injustices, real or imagined.

Over the last 200 years, 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. But the more they operated on society, the more they wanted to know about the patient. Thus began the vicious cycle: more data leading to more programs, more programs producing more data, which lead to still more programs producing more data, and on and on.

According to the cliché, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. But in the dossiers of an unrestrained state, a little knowledge is very dangerous, while a lot of knowledge can be downright deadly. With questionable legislation but unquestioned police power behind it, 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. But considering the mounting Congressional opposition to the compulsory census and Americans’ increasing awareness of governmental excesses, census bureaucrats might encounter growing resistance as they put the finishing touches on the 1990 study. In fact, they should count on it.