home from a shopping excursion a few weeks ago to find a "notice
of visit" from the US Census Bureau affixed to my front door.
I had been expecting such a notice for some time because, unlike
my friends, I had not received a census form in the mail. A few
days later a census worker arrived at my door, and I was ready to
politely present her with my refusal to answer her questions –
a response to the census I had decided to make months earlier when
I learnt the census was taking place.
who consistently oppose the use of aggression and who recognize
the inherently aggressive nature of the state are continually faced
with dilemmas over whether to comply with state dictates and how
best to oppose them if they choose to. All of the available options
involve costs and compromises.
One may simply
refuse to comply and face the financial and legal consequences of
doing so. Thoreau – along with later adherents of his philosophy
such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Junior – was an advocate
of such peaceful noncompliance, writing,
Under a government
which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is
also a prison … the only house in a slave-state in which a free
man can abide with honor. If any think that their influence would
be lost there, and their voices no longer afflict the ear of the
State, that they would not be as an enemy within its walls, they
do not know by how much truth is stronger than error, nor how
much more eloquently and effectively he can combat injustice who
has experienced a little in his own person. Cast your whole vote,
not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority
is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even
a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole
weight. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison,
or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which
to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this
year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would
be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed
innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable
revolution, if any such is possible.
A second approach
is to flee and seek refuge in a country whose impositions seem less
burdensome. Escape has long been a popular choice of those seeking
to avoid the brutality of war, such as the estimated 30,000 to 40,000
moved to Canada during the US invasion and occupation of Vietnam
– or, more recently, Americans wishing to avoid redeployment
to Iraq. There
are many costs to leaving one’s country, including the loss of home
and separation from friends and family, plus punitive taxation of
libertarian can comply, recognizing that while submission may aid
the state in its various aggressive activities, the burden of guilt
does not fall upon the libertarian but upon those who tacitly or
explicitly accept the legitimacy of the state. As Manuel Lora contends,
libertarians should not be called upon to be martyrs in the cause
that libertarians face – some trivial and others quite serious
– are moral hazards created by the existence of the state.
Given that we do not legitimize state action we are not culpable
of the aggression that it causes. … Nor does [libertarianism]
require us to drastically reduce our already limited lives. …
[L]iberty and the ideals of freedom, peace and voluntary exchange
are just that – ideals. They are meant to guide our actions
towards whatever ends we might chose in life. They are not necessarily
ends themselves. Do not martyr yourself. Stay away from the libertarian
My own view
is something of a compromise between the positions advocated by
Thoreau and Lora. Where possible, I seek to avoid compliance with
state dictates and interaction with state agencies. For instance,
when costs are comparable I always prefer a private shipper, such
as FedEx or UPS, to the postal service.
the state employs draconian punishments to compel submission, I
will comply. For example, I pay my taxes because I do not wish to
suffer the same fate as Irwin
Schiff, a peaceful tax protestor who was sentenced to 13 years
in prison for an entirely nonviolent "crime."
In the case
of the census, I had considered the consequences of noncompliance
and deemed them tolerable, so I decided to refuse to answer any
questions. It was thus that I opened my door to speak with the census
worker waiting on my porch.
from the Census Bureau
I opened my
door and the census worker informed me that she worked for the Census
Bureau and needed a few minutes of my time to answer some questions.
I asked her what the consequences were for not answering, and she
replied that it was "illegal" to refuse but that there
were no consequences. It was immediately clear she was ignorant
of the provisions covering noncompliance with the census, which
I read when I had originally received the notice of visit. According
to US code, anyone refusing to answer the census "shall be
fined not more than $100."
then attempted to convince me of the importance of the census and
reassure me that any data collected would remain private. I explained
to her that my refusal to answer was not from a fear that my personal
information would be divulged by the Census Bureau, but because
I rejected any state action in principle due to the state’s inherently
aggressive nature. She seemed confused by my reason but dutifully
noted that I had refused to answer.
She left my
house after giving me a rather ominous warning that I was likely
to face further "harassment" from census workers in the
of harassment was not idle, either. According to constitutional
attorney John Whitehead,
and privately reported accounts of similar encounters between
American citizens and government enumerators suggest that some
Census workers are adopting an aggressive and harassing modus
harassment include census workers looking through private mail and
forcing their way into private residences. Whitehead further reports
that 1,800 census takers employed by the Census Bureau had criminal
records, a fact that was only discovered after they were
It was with
this knowledge in mind that I waited, with some trepidation, for
a second visit from the Census Bureau.
Visit from the Census Bureau
A week after
the first visit paid me by the Census Bureau, a second worker arrived
at my door. While I did not feel threatened by her at any time,
she was far more insistent and obnoxious than her predecessor, harrying
me long after I had made it clear that I did not wish to answer
any questions. The manner in which she attempted to convince me
of the importance of complying with the census and the reasoning
she used were deeply revealing of the ideologically statist thinking
that is pervasive today.
After I informed
the worker that I had previously refused to answer any questions
on principle – and thus that I would refuse to answer her questions
– she warned me that participation in the census was "mandatory."
I replied that I was aware of the potential consequences and still
did not wish to comply, whereupon she switched strategies, trying
persuasion by utilitarian arguments. The worker explained that without
the census the government would not be able to correctly allocate
its funds to the various states. Of course, the government has no
funds, but only that which it violently appropriates from the population,
and I explained that such violent redistribution of private property
was entirely immoral.
Like the first
worker who visited my house, the second was confused about the aggressive
nature of the state. I explained to her that, as Ludwig von Mises
observed, all government action ultimately resorts to the use or
threat of aggression. Mises wrote,
It is important
to remember that government interference always means either violent
action or the threat of such action. Government is in the last
resort the employment of armed men, of policemen, gendarmes, soldiers,
prison guards, and hangmen. The essential feature of government
is the enforcement of its decrees by beating, killing, and imprisoning.
was apparently confused by the basis of my principled rejection
and told me that while other government agencies might employ aggression,
the conducting of the census did not require it. She went on, in
a vain attempt to placate me, saying that all the data collected
was strictly confidential and that it was not even shared with other
government agencies. She emphasized that not once in the history
of the nation had data from the census been shared with other government
This was, in
fact, a bald-faced lie. In 1943 the Census Bureau divulged data
that was used to identify Japanese Americans, who were then confined
in concentration camps for the remaining duration of World War II
– a fact that was suppressed by the bureau for over 50 years.
More recently, the Census Bureau provided specially tabulated statistics
to the Department of Homeland Security to help identify Arab Americans.
In a final,
exasperated attempt to convince me of the importance of the census,
the worker rhetorically asked me whether I used the road in front
of my house, and triumphantly added that without the census –
and the accompanying redistribution of purloined property –
there would be no public schools and America’s children would grow
up illiterate. The worker was confusing, as the great 19th-century
French economist Frdric Bastiat explained, the distinction between
government and society, thinking that if the state did not provision
for some service, it could not exist at all. Bastiat wrote,
like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction
between government and society. As a result of this, every time
we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists
conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove
of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed
to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists
say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced
equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on,
and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not
wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise
to the worker that, while I did use the road, I did not approve
of the unjustified manner in which its construction was funded,
and I added that roads could be provided peacefully by the market.
As Walter Block explains, private roads would not only be more efficient
and result in fewer automobile fatalities and catastrophic bridge
failures, but they would also be morally preferable to a statist
I further explained
that the public school system in America was the cause of, rather
than the solution to, the scourge of illiteracy that exists in the
country. According to the National Adult Literacy Survey, over 40
million Americans read at the lowest level of proficiency.
And while funding for public education has doubled in real terms
over the last 15 years,
there has been little discernable increase in the reading proficiency
of the average, 8th-grade, American student – which remains
at an abysmally low level.
I also endeavored
to explain that, contrary to the widely believed canard that the
public school system was instituted to educate America’s youth,
early proponents of public schooling openly admitted that their
true purpose was to forcibly inculcate children with an abiding
devotion to the state. As Edward Ross, a progressive sociologist,
wrote in his 1901 treatise Social
Control: A Survey of the Foundations of Order,
little plastic lumps of human dough from private households and
shape them on the social kneading-board. … And so it happens
that the role of the schoolmaster in the social economy is just
sometimes referred to as the father of California’s public school
eye over the map of our country to-day, and show me a section
of States from which men shed their blood most freely in battle
for the defense of the Union, and I will show you that such States
have also expended the most money for public schools …. [The
public school system’s] crowning achievement is that they have
educated an army of half a million of men who have volunteered
to sustain the national flag with a bayonet.
Not only were
early proponents of public schooling open about their desire to
shape children to be complaisant to a statist social order, they
were equally open about their desire to forcibly carry out their
agenda. An article from the Massachusetts Teacher, which
appeared in 1851, concludes,
old not much can be done; but with their children, the great remedy
is education. The rising generation must be taught as our
own children are taught. We say must be, because in many
instances this can only be accomplished by coercion. … Nothing
can operate effectually here but stringent legislation, thoroughly
carried out by an efficient police; the children must be gathered
up and forced into school, and those who resist or impede this
plan, whether parents or priests, must be held accountable
are some deep flaws to the shibboleth that public schooling was
benevolently instituted to improve literacy among America’s children.
that her utilitarian arguments had failed to persuade me of the
beneficence of publicly funded roads or schools, the census worker
entreated me one last time to "at least" tell her how
many people lived in my house. When I steadfastly refused, she lingered
on my porch for a few moments, glowering at me, before noting my
refusal on her census sheet and leaving my house.
are often confronted by the difficult choice of how their principled
rejection of state aggression should manifest itself in practice.
There is no perfect solution, and all potential choices involve
costs and compromises. My own approach has been to avoid compliance
and interactions with the state when I believe the cost to myself
and my family is tolerable.
is an example of a government program that I refused to comply with,
knowing that I could be fined for doing so. While the census is
not the most barbaric or intrusive activity conducted by the state,
it is crucial for the state’s most pernicious behavior and its defining
characteristic – namely, the massive appropriation and redistribution
of private property.
of the census itself also consumes considerable tax revenue. The
Census Bureau spent billions of dollars employing 3.8 million workers
to conduct the 2010 census – workers who were diverted from
the productive private sector and put to the purpose of prying into
the lives of millions of American families, many of whom wished
to be left in peace.
My aim in refusing
to participate in the census was twofold: to explicitly withdraw
my consent – or, as Ayn Rand called it, "the sanction
of the victim"
– and to use my experience as a starting point to explain the
aggressive nature of the state to others, including the census workers.
For it is merely the widespread recognition of the illegitimacy
of the state that would cause it to dissolve. As tienne de La Botie
exhorted in his brilliant essay Discours
de la Servitude Volontaire,
serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you
place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that
you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great
Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own
weight and break into pieces.
John Whitehead, "Troubling
Reports of Census Taker Abuses on the Uptick," Huffington
Post, May 24, 2010.
Teresa Watanabe, "In
1943 Census Released Japanese American’s Data," LA
Times, March 31, 2007.
Edward Ross, Social
Control: A Survey of the Foundations of Order (Transaction
Publishers, 2009 [Macmillan, 1901]), p. 166.
John Swett, Public
Education in California: Its Origin and Development (American
Book Company, 1911), pp. 143–146.
W.M.D. Swan (ed.), Massachusetts Teacher 4, no. 10 (1851).
"2010 Census by the Numbers: Door-to-Door Followup,"
US Census Bureau News, April 30, 2010.
Boyapati [send him mail] is
a former Google engineer. In 2007 he started Operation Live Free
or Die, a grassroots organization to help Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential
campaign. Since 2009 he has devoted himself to studying Austrian