According to the entry for me at Wikipedia, which I hope is reliable, I am a libertarian anarchist. Why would any person who fits that description work for the government at all, not to speak of working without pay? Well, my story is straightforward.
Some time ago I received in the mail from the U.S. Census Bureau a form to be filled out, to wit, the 2007 Survey of Business Owners and Self-Employed Persons questionnaire. I naturally threw it in the trash.
A few weeks later, I received another questionnaire whose cover letter read in part as follows:
We have not received your response to the 2007 Survey of Business Owners and Self-Employed Persons (SBO) questionnaire, Form SBO-1, which was mailed to you several weeks ago. These data are essential to business and government decision-making. We need information about your business to provide reliable data for your industry and geographic area.
We remind you again that your response to this survey is mandatory under Title 13 of the United States Code. Applicable provisions of the law are shown on the back of this letter.
I hastened to read the back of the letter, where I found the following:
Mandatory Provisions of Law Pertaining to Economic Censuses — Section 224 as amended by Section 3571 of Title 18 United States Code.
Whoever, being the owner, official, agent, person in charge, or assistant to the person in charge, of any company, business, institution, establishment, religious body, or organization of any nature whatsoever, neglects or refuses, when requested by the Secretary or other authorized officer or employee of the Department of Commerce or bureau or agency thereof, to answer completely and correctly to the best of his knowledge all questions relating to his company, business, institution, establishment, religious body, or other organization, or to records or statistics in his official custody, contained on any census or other schedule, or questionnaire prepared and submitted to him under the authority of this title, shall be fined not more than $5,000; and if he willfully gives a false answer to any such questions, he shall be fined not more than $10,000.
I thought about throwing the second form in the trash, as I had thrown the first one. Then I thought about telling the U.S. Bureau of the Census to go to hell. Then I thought about the large, threatened fines, and I filled out the form. I spent about 15 minutes doing so. My rate of pay for having done so works out to exactly zero dollars per hour, which is somewhat less than I usually charge for my services.
Well, big deal, you may be thinking. But I invite you to pause and consider afresh what this little episode in my life illustrates.
First, so far as I can tell from reading the U.S. Constitution, the government has no Constitutional authority to demand that I answer these questions about my business. Perhaps, if I am mistaken, someone can direct me to the relevant clause of the document.
Second, the government’s stated rationale for collecting the information is lame. No great purpose is to be served. On a FAQ sheet included with the questionnaire, one finds a section headed “Why does the government take this survey?” But this section’s text merely states that the Census Bureau is required by law to take the survey every five years and describes the variables that are surveyed and the way in which these data will be combined with other data the government collects. The section does not give a substantive reason for collecting the data in the first place, seemingly assuming that if a certain kind of information might be of interest to the government or someone else, that interest suffices to justify the information’s forced collection at the expense of those who possess the information.
Another section of the FAQ sheet tells us “Who uses the survey data.” Users are said to include the Small Business Administration, local government commissions, government agencies at all levels, “a national women-owned business trade association” not identified by name, consultants and researchers, and individual businesses. In truth, however, information about my business is in all cases, literally as well as figuratively, none of their business. If these people want information about my business, why can’t they make me an offer for it? After all, it’s my property.
Well, as Al Capone is supposed to have said, you can get a lot more done with a kind word and a gun, than with a kind word alone. And everything the government gets done — including its extraction from me of information about my business — it gets done by threatening people with violence.
Oh, Higgs, you might be saying, you’re just overwrought and hyperventilating. But am I really? Suppose that I had very strong feelings about the privacy of my personal affairs, so I simply refused to provide the information requested. Eventually, subject to the vagaries of the government’s escalating enforcement actions, I might be issued a summons, which of course, I, having the strong feelings that I have about the matter, would ignore. Hence, in due course, police officers would be sent to arrest me for having ignored the summons. And I, having the strong feelings that I have about the matter, would naturally resist the arrest. Whereupon the police officers might shoot me dead if they felt inclined to do so, rather than simply beating me savagely and hauling my broken body off to jail.
And for what would the police have battered or killed me in this case? Precisely for having refused to fill out a bullshit form to provide information about my business that no one had a just right to demand of me in the first place. Obviously there’s no real justice at work here, but where’s the logic in the use of such brutally disproportionate sanctions in response to such a petty act of noncompliance?
The logic — the same logic that leads the government to attach similar criminal sanctions to an indefinitely great number of petty infractions of its idiotic rules — is that the government wants you and me to obey its dictates slavishly regardless of their importance. It seeks not simple compliance where compliance might be required to accomplish an important public purpose. Instead it seeks immediate, unquestioning, universal compliance — including compliance with dictates so trivial that they ought never to have been the subject of government action in the first place — in order to put us in our place.
And that place is with our faces constantly under the government’s boot.
We live in a police state, a tyranny of genuinely grotesque dimensions, but because it has developed gradually over more than a century, we have gradually grown accustomed to its outrages and to its moronic and insulting requirements, each accompanied by criminal sanctions that amount to death threats, should we continue to resist. It is not a pleasant feeling to live immersed in a sea of death threats, surrounded by a variety of armed government thugs prepared to dish out beatings, tasings, and death whenever anyone, for whatever reason, resists the government’s orders. That we Americans have resigned ourselves to living in such an environment and, in many cases, continue to refer to this police state as a free country speaks volumes about our ability to follow Winston Smith’s example, in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, of loving Big Brother.
This first appeared in The Beacon.
Robert Higgs [send him mail] is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and editor of The Independent Review. He is also a columnist for LewRockwell.com. His most recent book is Neither Liberty Nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government. He is also the author of Depression, War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy, Resurgence of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11 and Against Leviathan: Government Power and a Free Society.