Saturday , June 6 2020
Home / Timothy Taylor: Conversable Economist / James Madison on Why to Fill Out Your Census Form

James Madison on Why to Fill Out Your Census Form

Summary:
I saw a news release from the US Bureau of the Census over the weekend that only about one-sixth of US households have responded to the 2020 Census so far. Here's what James Madison had to say, back in 1790, about why to fill out the form. To set the stage, section 2 of the just-adopted US Constitution called for an enumeration of people to determine the number of members each state would have in the House of Representatives: "The actual Enumeration 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, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct." But when the bill to enact the first Census came up in 1790, James Madison (then a member of the House of Representatives) argued that although collecting

Topics:
Timothy Taylor considers the following as important:

This could be interesting, too:

Tyler Cowen writes The return to studying economics is fairly high

Bradford DeLong writes Gandalf the Grey Talking Shop…

Maria Monroe writes Statement on structural racism and economic inequality in the United States

Menzie Chinn writes Guest Contribution: “Global financial markets and oil price shocks in real time”

I saw a news release from the US Bureau of the Census over the weekend that only about one-sixth of US households have responded to the 2020 Census so far. Here's what James Madison had to say, back in 1790, about why to fill out the form.

To set the stage, section 2 of the just-adopted US Constitution called for an enumeration of people to determine the number of members each state would have in the House of Representatives: "The actual Enumeration 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, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct." But when the bill to enact the first Census came up in 1790, James Madison (then a member of the House of Representatives) argued that although collecting additional information would add to the difficulties, both the legislators and citizens would proceed with "more light and satisfaction" when they "rest their arguments on facts, instead of assertions and conjectures." 

Our records of Congressional debates from that time do not quote exactly verbatim, but instead are paraphrased. The fuller comments attributed to Madison are below, but here's are some highlights of what he had to say on January 25 and then on February 2, 1790:
This kind of information, he [Madison] observed, all Legislatures had wished for; but this kind of information had never been obtained in any country. ... If the plan was pursued in taking every future census, it would give them an opportunity of marking the progress of the society, and distinguishing the growth of every interest. This would furnish ground for many useful calculations, and at the same time answer the purpose of a check on the officers who were employed to make the enumeration ... I take it, sir, that in order to accommodate our laws to the real situation of our constituents, we ought to be acquainted with that situation. ... If gentlemen have any doubts with respect to its utility, I cannot satisfy them in a better manner, than by referring them to the debates which took place upon the bills, intend, collaterally, to benefit the agricultural, commercial, and manufacturing parts of the community. Did they not wish then to know the relative proportion of each, and the exact number of every division, in order that they might rest their arguments on facts, instead of assertions and conjectures? ... We should have given less encouragement in some instances, and more in others; but in every instance, we should have proceeded with more light and satisfaction.
Afterword: Here is a fuller version of the comments attributed to Madison. Here is the paraphrase of Madison's comments for January 25, 1790:  
Mr. Madison observed, that they had now an opportunity of obtaining the most useful information for those who should hereafter be called upon to legislate for their country, if this bill was extended to as to embrace some other objects besides the bare enumeration of the inhabitants; it would enable them to adapt the public measures to the particular circumstances of the community. In order to know the various interests of the United States, it was necessary that the description of the several classes into which the community is divided should be accurately known. On this knowledge the Legislature might proceed to make a proper provision for the agricultural, commercial, and manufacturing, interests, but without it they could never make their provisions in due proportion. This kind of information, he observed, all Legislatures had wished for; but this kind of information had never been obtained in any country. He wished, therefore to avail himself of the present opportunity of accomplishing so valuable a purpose. If the plan was pursued in taking every future census, it would give them an opportunity of marking the progress of the society, and distinguishing the growth of every interest. This would furnish ground for many useful calculations, and at the same time answer the purpose of a check on the officers who were employed to make the enumeration; forasmuch as the aggregate number is divided into parts, any imposition might be discovered with proportionable ease.
And here is a fuller paraphrase of Madison's comments on February 2, 1790:
And I am very sensible, Mr. Speaker, that there will be more difficulty attendant on the taking the census, in the way required by the constitution, and which we are obliged to perform, than there will be in the additional trouble of making all the distinctions contemplated in the bill. The classes of people most troublesome to enumerate, in this schedule, are happily those resident in large towns, the greatest number of artisans live in populous cities, and compact settlements, where distinctions are made with great ease.
I take it, sir, that in order to accommodate our laws to the real situation of our constituents, we ought to be acquainted with that situation. It may be impossible to ascertain it as far as I wish, but we may ascertain it so far as to be extremely useful, when we come to pass laws, affecting any particular description of people. If gentlemen have any doubts with respect to its utility, I cannot satisfy them in a better manner, than by referring them to the debates which took place upon the bills, intend, collaterally, to benefit the agricultural, commercial, and manufacturing parts of the community. Did they not wish then to know the relative proportion of each, and the exact number of every division, in order that they might rest their arguments on facts, instead of assertions and conjectures? Will any gentleman pretend to doubt, but our regulations would have been better accommodated to the real state of the society than they are? If our decisions had been influenced by actual returns, would they not have been varied, according as the one side or the other was more or less numerous? We should have given less encouragement in some instances, and more in others; but in every instance, we should have proceeded with more light and satisfaction.
Finally, this post repeats some material from a post back in March 2017 about the importance of government statistical agencies. But with the 2020 Census upon us, the message seemed to bear repeating.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *