Information improves the efficiency of markets — and of governments, too. There are systemic reasons why democratic governments frequently behave foolishly: Politicians’ constant incentive is to confer current benefits on targeted beneficiaries and to defer costs (by running deficits). Hence there are weak incentives to formulate government policies with the quaint characteristic of measurably ameliorating broad social problems. The ACS cannot cure systemic problems, but abolishing it would require government to be unnecessarily ignorant.
Some incandescent conservatives propose forbidding the ACS to ask about respondents’ religious beliefs and practices. But it does not ask. It is more interested in, for example, at what time respondents leave home for work, information that helps local governments plan traffic flows. The ACS does not seek to identify illegal immigrants, but by asking respondents their ethnicity, if they are citizens and how long they have been in the country, it informs public debate by estimating the number of illegal immigrants.
Secrecy is government regulation — the rationing of information. The collection and dissemination of useful information by government serve the deregulation of life by empowering the public to direct the government, to judge its performance, and to decrease dependence on government by invigorating the private sector.
In the absence of data, politicians pluck factoids from the ether, as Barack Obama did in this year’s State of the Union address: “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on, by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.” Such facially implausible and utterly unsubstantiated claims flourish when there is indifference to information.
The Welfare Reform Act of 1996, which was applied conservatism, happened because empirical data convinced enough Democrats of the costs of welfare dependency. Charles Murray, the most consequential and conservative contemporary social scientist (“Losing Ground,” “Coming Apart”), depends on ACS and other census surveys.
Clearly, conservatives should favor the nation applying to itself the injunction “Know thyself.” Besides, if conservatives do not think information about society — the more the merrier — strengthens their case, why are they conservatives?