Why I Am a Census Resister

Libertarians are often split on the issue of how to respond to government requests like the Census. It is plainly obvious that taking money from the people by force in order to engage in this glorified demographics survey is unjust, and many worry that the questions we are required to answer are far too intrusive. Therefore, many libertarians have chosen to refuse to participate in the census in one form or another – some tossing out their census forms entirely and others responding only to questions they feel are permitted to be asked by the Constitution (namely, the question regarding the number of persons living in the household).

Others argue, though, that while the census is surely unjust, one should follow the law anyway because, after all, it does not really do harm to anyone and you are unnecessarily exposing yourself to additional aggression by refusing to cooperate. I find this response persuasive – after all the taxation is a sunk cost and the aggression has already occurred, indeed, the money has already been spent to pay for the census, so the libertarian who responds to the census is in no way contributing to the aggression inherent in the process. Further, the threat of additional aggression is good reason to follow the law. Given that one does not contribute to aggression and that one can avoid additional aggression against oneself by filling out a similar form, this is a very powerful argument in favor of compliance.

However, as the title of this post suggests, I have chosen to be noncompliant with the census. But why, given the strength of the argument in favor of compliance?

First, let me say what my reasons are not. My reasons have nothing to do with the constitutionality (or, rather, unconstitutionality) of the questions. That argument, it seems to me, should not be relevant: the Constitution is a strictly utilitarian device for restricting government (a job at which it has failed spectacularly, but that is its nature regardless), whether we should act to promote it or not is only a question of whether doing so is conducive to our goals or not – the Constitution is not valuable for its own sake.

My reasons also have nothing to do with the intrusiveness of the questions or the time it takes to fill out. I participate in many surveys and studies that are sent to me – be they from researchers, event organizers, or even sometimes restaurants that I go to frequently. I have no problem helping people get this sort of information and it does not even bother me that it is the government that has information regarding my sex, race, and so on.

The reason that I refused to fill out my census form was simply an issue of dignity. The U.S. Census Bureau has decided that the way they would like to encourage people to participate in their demographic study is to order us to complete their forms or else. On the front of the envelop containing my census form, in huge, all-caps, bold lettering, it reads: “YOUR RESPONSE IS REQUIRED BY LAW.” This is a far cry from the approach nongovernmental surveys take – which all humbly ask for a few moments of my time to aid them in whatever it is they are trying to gather for. But the Census Bureau’s approach is not just impolite – it is an affront to my human dignity. That someone would dare to demand, at the point of a gun, that I fill out their silly survey is the height of arrogance and absurdity. This is an assault on my status as a being worthy of even the most minimal amount of respect.

But, of course, those who argue for compliance can respond, “ah, but is not taxation at least as much of an affront to your human dignity? Are there not a large number of government actions which far exceed the census by this measure, actions which include demands to which you comply?” And the answer, of course, is yes. I pay my taxes and comply with all sorts of requirements the government places on me. But, of course, the difference is in the penalties. For refusing to file tax returns, I could end up in jail and incur massive fines. The penalty for refusing to comply with the census? $100 maximum. Is protecting my dignity from the government goons worth the potential loss of $100? I think so. I would never look down on someone who thought otherwise, of course; but for me, $100 is far less valuable than my pride and dignity.

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  • One could also resist as a means to “probe the defenses” of the Census Bureau–to see how long it takes them to send second and third requests, and see how much press there is about non-responses.

    If they start making personal threats, I’ll probably end up responding. But right now, I’ve got more important things to do than try to figure out what they want.