I’m hiding out—from the Census Bureau.  True, they usually don’t send out U.S. marshals with guns and handcuffs.  But I’m playing it safe anyway, because the Bureau has been after me since I failed to fill out its treasured questionnaire, “The American Community Survey.”

I’ve been through this before.  I don’t mind if the government learns how many people live here.  That’s necessary for drawing electoral districts, which is a legitimate government function.  So, on the traditional census form, I routinely fill in the number of people living in my house and leave the rest of the questions blank.  That has led the Bureau to call and even send busybodies to my door to pry into my affairs.  They are as determined as those kids recruited to sell magazine subscriptions at inflated prices, only much worse.  A few years ago, I received a special small-business survey.  It was even longer than the decennial long form, so I tossed it in the trash.  The Census Bureau thoughtfully sent a second one, followed by a threatening letter.  The government eventually gave up on me; maybe they found a substitute victim.

More recently, I received a new, equally obnoxious demand for information.  And it was a demand.  Although Bureau Director Charles Louis Kincannon’s cover letter requested me “to help us with this very important survey by completing it and mailing it back,” it also observed that I “am required by U.S. law to respond to this survey.”  Indeed, the little pamphlet of “Frequently Asked Questions” was tougher: “Title 13, as changed by Title 18, imposes a penalty for not responding.”

When I didn’t respond, the Bureau sent its telemarketers after me, repeatedly attempting to reach me by phone.  Then, a field representative dropped by my house when I wasn’t home; she left her business card along with Form 11-38A, entitled REQUEST FOR APPOINTMENT.  The flyer urged me to call: “I am required to make contact with an adult member of this household and I am obligated to return until contact has been made.”

Then came a letter from the program supervisor, sadly noting that the field representative “has been unable to reach you.”  Imagine that.  I was a little offended, though, that the letter was simply addressed to Current Resident.  Obviously, they’re more interested in my house than they are in me.  Interestingly, the Bureau dropped its confrontational tone: “We hope we can count on your cooperation in this important survey and are enclosing some information about the survey.”  Then came a couple more visits from the field representative, highlighted by her waiting business card when I returned from a trip.

It’s typical of government today.  Government cares not one whit about the value of my time or my preference for privacy.  “The Census Bureau is required by U.S. law to keep your answer confidential,” Mr. Kincannon assured me.  (The program supervisor also tried to reassure me about this point: “Names and addresses are never reported in our findings.”)  Even if I believe that such a provision offers any real guarantee of confidentiality, however, why should I want to let the Feds ransack my personal life?

Alas, the last census is out of date, the Bureau informs me: “the characteristics of your household may have changed since Census 2000.”  Well, no, actually.  In any case, Director Kincannon contended that the information is important, since it will “help decide where new schools, hospitals, and fire stations are needed.”

Aren’t those local functions?  In my case, isn’t the Fairfax County school board likely to track enrollment numbers in planning classroom construction?  Isn’t the county board of supervisors likely to look at the construction of new neighborhoods in deciding on the number and location of firefighters?  Why not leave the questioning up to Fairfax County?  (In fact, they recently sent me a school survey.  Apparently, they don’t trust, or need, the Census Bureau.)

As for hospitals, that’s largely a private function.  Kaiser Permanente doesn’t need to know my income, education level, or ancestry to decide if it wants to add to its facilities nearby.  Bed occupancy rates will tell potential investors more than my answer on whether I have trouble bathing.

Moreover, explained the Bureau, the data is used “to show a large corporation that a town has the workforce the company needs.”  But shouldn’t gaining such information be the firm’s problem?  Big business wants subsidies.  Big business wants information.  Big business wants aid, assistance, and help at every turn.  So what else is new?  That’s no reason to give big business what it wants.

Director Kincannon won’t give up.  He claims that “the information also is used to develop programs to reduce traffic congestion, provide job training, and plan for the healthcare needs of the elderly.”  The program supervisor went further, contending that the data would help “evaluate programs such as welfare and workforce diversification.”

What, pray tell, does Washington have to do with solving traffic congestion?  The most basic traffic issue in Northern Virginia has to do with cooperation between the state government in Richmond and the local authorities, not with the time I leave for work.  It doesn’t take a genius to observe more traffic on the road ever earlier.

Job training should be a private function and shouldn’t be affected whether or not I have a second mortgage.  As for the elderly, has anyone missed where older Americans tend to retire and when assisted-living facilities tend to fill?  Anyway, my answer to “What languages do you speak at home?” doesn’t seem likely to improve planning for America’s aging population.

We’d all like more accountability for government initiatives, but, over the years, little good has come from scores of welfare programs.  We didn’t need the American Community Survey to recognize that the entire welfare system had indeed failed when Congress reformed it in 1996.  And, in the future, we should be able to figure out whether the programs are working without the survey.

Most of the questions seek to elicit information that appears interesting rather than useful.  In some cases, the answers will be put to ill effect—supporting America’s race-based spoils system, for instance.

The survey begins by asking the name, age, and relationship of anyone living in my house.  Then it gets into the important stuff.  Is anyone Hispanic, and, if so, what kind of Hispanic?  There’s room to list about five people.  If you have more folks at home, then go ahead and put down their names: “We may call you for more information about them,” explains the Census Bureau.  Apparently, the agency’s curiosity is insatiable.

The next section is on housing.  What kind of a building do I live in?  What were my agricultural sales?  (I wonder, does that include marijuana and coca?)  How many vehicles do I own?  How much do I spend on utilities?  How much is my mortgage?  Why do people live here?  (If I sent the form in, I’d probably fill in “Hell if I know” as an “other reason” in answering this one.)  At least the Bureau doesn’t ask—this time!—how many bathrooms I have.

After they’re finished with my house, the Bureau has 42 questions for me—and for every other person who lives in my house.  Where was I born?  What level of school have I completed?  (I thought they said they wanted the answers to plan new school construction, not figure out where facilities should have been built decades ago.)  What’s my ancestry, and do I speak another language?

There are several questions on my mental and physical health.  My favorite: Do I have a long-term “physical, mental, or emotional condition” that makes it hard for me to shop?  (Does inadequate income count, I wonder?)

The census busybodies certainly are eclectic.  Do I care for any grandkids?  Did I serve in the military?  (If so, when and for how long?)  Do I work?  What time do I leave?  You’ve just got to wonder what they do with this information.  Does, say, the Census Bureau tally up departure times and send an e-mail to Virginia warning that the Washington suburbs face an increased risk of highway congestion at, say, 7:45 AM, because that’s when I head out?  (I’d recommend that the state government instead send someone out to assess road-construction needs.)

Finally, the Census Bureau asks all sorts of questions about my work and how much I earn.  Isn’t complying with the IRS enough?  I pay my taxes.  Shouldn’t that satisfy Uncle Sam?

In case I don’t find the questionnaire self-explanatory, the Bureau has included a 14-page guide.  I should list bills even if I don’t pay them.  I should do the same for taxes, but not if they are due for a previous year.  Cell phones get counted only if I do pay my bills, however, since, if I don’t, service is discontinued.  “Cars or trucks permanently out of working order” shouldn’t be counted.  If I don’t know the fuel used by my apartment, I can “obtain this information from the owner, manager, or janitor.”  I shouldn’t report my religion as my ancestry.

Still, you just have to love the Feds.  They ask the same 42 questions for persons two through five, assuming persons two through five reside with me.  Pages 22 and 23 “are intentionally left blank.”  (Trust me, I never complain when I find a blank page on a government form.)  The Bureau estimates that, “for the average household, this form will take 38 minutes to complete.”  But how many people live in the average household?

Finally—and very reassuringly—the Bureau concludes:

Respondents are not required to respond to any information collection unless it displays a valid approval number from the Office of Management and budget.  This 8-digit number appears in the bottom right on the front cover of this form.

Yes, indeed, the number appears.  OMB No. 0607-0810.  Very reassuring.

Undoubtedly, some governments somewhere would find some of this information useful.  Let’s be frank, however: Anyone who has watched local politics knows that officials rarely make objective decisions after sitting in ivory towers, sifting through abstract Census Bureau data.  The advantage of local government is that lawmakers can drive around and talk to people.  They don’t need federally collected data to decide on school placement or road construction.

Uncle Sam already does far too much and threatens far too many people.  Once every ten years, let the Feds ask how many people live where.  Beyond that, Washington and, most importantly, states and localities should contract out surveys to private firms, which effectively—and voluntarily—collect information upon which companies base billions in investment decisions.  We don’t need a big Census Bureau—especially one that is so eager and determined to force its way into my living room.