Are Americans as Cynical as the Census Bureau Thinks?

The form letter in the mail today from the Census Bureau—which I suppose everyone in the United States has received—urged me to participate in the upcoming census. “Your response is important,” it said, because “Results from the 2010 Census will be used to. . . .”

Can the reader guess how the sentence ends? In an earlier day, officials would have appealed to overarching principles. They would have pointed out that census figures are used to apportion seats in the House of Representatives, so by participating in the census, the citizen is helping to carry out the Constitution. Or they might have stressed the value of knowledge: the census gathers data useful in understanding social and economic processes.

Well, today government officials no longer focus on higher ideals. To their way of thinking, Americans aren’t interested in the Constitution or the search for truth. What motivates us is. . . greed! Here is how they explain why our help with the census is important: “Results from the 2010 Census will be used to help each community get its fair share of government funds for highways, schools, health facilities, and many other programs you and your neighbors need. Without a complete, accurate census, your community may not receive its fair share.” The appeal, you see, is to the entitlement mentality, to the idea that the federal government is a cash cow, a source of funds for everything our hearts desire.

Census officials may have miscalculated the mindset of citizens, however. Many Americans have not been conned by the “cash cow” picture of government benefits. They know that funds for “programs you and your neighbor need” come from taxes “you and your neighbors” pay, so that government benefits are a wasteful and rather corrupt system of robbing Peter to pay Paul—or (absurd as it may be) robbing Peter to pay Peter. To announce that the Census is the key to this grasping, irrational system of mutual plunder might prompt thoughtful, moral individuals to have nothing to do with it.

James L. Payne is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Director of Lytton Research and Analysis.
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