Census Inverted: No Representation Without Taxation?

Census forms are due April 12, and soon Census workers will be seen pounding the streets, looking for the unaccounted-for.

This year’s promotional campaign by the Census Bureau, urging compliance so that each of us can get our “fair share” of government money, turns the traditional purpose of a census on its head: from time immemorial, governments have counted the people in order to make sure the state got its “fair share” of taxes.

After all, Jesus was born in Bethlehem—fulfilling prophecy—because of the Roman Empire’s census. As the NIV version of the Bible explains:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn

Yet other translations of the passage have it as:

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.

The U.S. Constitution likewise aligns the Census and taxes:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration [Census] shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years …

Note that “Indians not taxed” were not be counted, and “other Persons”—non-free Persons, i.e., slaves—were to be counted at the rate on which taxes were paid: three fifths.

Remember that a rallying cry for the American Revoluton had been “No taxation without representation.” Thus, the method established by the Constitution to set representation proportional to taxation was no mere coincidence. After all, if those not taxed had representatives in Congress, what would stop them from passing expensive legislation that had to be covered by taxes they didn’t have to pay?

When the 16th amendment replaced the “direct Taxes” provided for in the Census clause with an income tax, the Census, representation, and taxation were decoupled:

The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.

Fast forwarding to today, the Tax Foundation reports that record numbers of Americans pay no income taxes—in 2008, nearly 40%, and growing:

Meanwhile, the taxes paid by the top 1% of taxpayers now exceeds that of the lower 95%:

There’s a lot of loose talk these days about the Constitution being outmoded. But the Founders were no fools—and no fans of democracy, which they apocryphally characterized as “3 wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner.”

So here’s a modest proposition: let’s either return to taxation proportional to enumeration, or representation proportional to taxation. To have neither means that today, 95 wolves and one sheep are voting. Of course the wolves will eventually discover that one sheep doesn’t go very far, but it may take a while. In the meantime, try not to baaa too loudly.

With the deadline upon us, if you need help completing your Census form, Christopher Walken offers this helpful how-to video.

Mary L. G. Theroux is Senior Vice President of the Independent Institute. Having received her A.B. in economics from Stanford University, she is Managing Director of Lightning Ventures, L.P., a San Francisco Bay Area investment firm, former Chairman of the Board of Advisors for the Salvation Army of both San Francisco and Alameda County, and Vice President of the C.S. Lewis Society of California.
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