EDITORIAL: A nosy big brother?

Does the federal government have a right to know how many toilets you have in your house? Or about your ancestry? The language you speak in your house? Apparently so. The Census 2000 long form will ask about these things and much more when it arrives in some of our homes in the next few weeks. The rest of us will be asked to fill out a short form that confines questions to basic inquiries about who, what, where, when, name, sex, race, etc.

Even so, is Uncle Sam asking for more information than he has a right to receive from us? It?s a sticky question. The original purpose for taking a census, according to our founders in 1790, was simply to count the population and then establish boundaries for congressional districts. No interest in toilets, back then, apparently.

Some who look suspiciously at the long arm of the federal government argue strongly that public-minded citizens have an obligation to cooperate with the census on questions relevant to those two points, and those two points alone. The rest of the questionnaire deserves a literal ?None of your business.?

At a time when Washington continues to try to manage more and more of our affairs, the argument generates some sympathy. Thomas Jefferson argued forcefully that the government the governs best governs least.

The argument for cooperating fully with the U.S. Census Bureau isn?t as highly principled, but it does carry the weight of practicality.

Like it or not, the census process has became an information-gathering tool the government uses to assess the situation of its citizens. ?It is how America knows what America needs,? Sherman A. Parks Jr., district manager for the U.S. census, says in our lead article. If it truly serves that purpose, it has carries some significant benefits.

At the same time, noncooperation may be a futile expression of…frustration. The bureau has developed intentional strategies for getting the information it wants from us one way or another.

Given the pros and cons, we somewhat grudgingly encourage cooperation.

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