Commentary Magazine


Topic: census

Will the IRS Scandal Cripple the Census?

That the IRS apparently targeted conservatives—or, indeed, anyone—for political purposes is inexcusable, and it will likely be a blot on the agency’s record from which it will never fully recover. Its alleged actions are simply beyond the pale and will forever lead to doubt about motivation and fairness in any future audits.

The reverberations from the scandal will not be limited, however, to the agency. During the last census, there was some controversy regarding the intrusiveness of the questions asked, especially for those who received the enhanced questionnaire—no longer called the long-form but rather replaced by the “American Community Survey”—which asked, for example, not only detailed questions about income, but also such information as hours worked and means of transport. Perhaps some bureaucrat believes he has some honorable reason to ask such a question, but a dishonest employee might take those answers and learn when to burglarize a house.

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That the IRS apparently targeted conservatives—or, indeed, anyone—for political purposes is inexcusable, and it will likely be a blot on the agency’s record from which it will never fully recover. Its alleged actions are simply beyond the pale and will forever lead to doubt about motivation and fairness in any future audits.

The reverberations from the scandal will not be limited, however, to the agency. During the last census, there was some controversy regarding the intrusiveness of the questions asked, especially for those who received the enhanced questionnaire—no longer called the long-form but rather replaced by the “American Community Survey”—which asked, for example, not only detailed questions about income, but also such information as hours worked and means of transport. Perhaps some bureaucrat believes he has some honorable reason to ask such a question, but a dishonest employee might take those answers and learn when to burglarize a house.

It’s important to have a census—and, indeed, it is mandated by Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution, but beyond confirming that someone exists in a certain location, it is clear that the government cannot and should not ask any other question. Not only is the gathering of such information intrusive—no matter how well-meaning big government believes itself to be—but after the IRS scandal, it is clear that trust in public servants accessing sensitive information is, if not misplaced, then certainly risky.

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