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I have been enjoying the data of the Census, FHWA, FTA, BLS, and even DOJ for years now.  I’m a transportation  planner and a policy wonk, after all, so these things are grist for my mill.  

However, as a left-libertarian*, I have to ask myself if they systematically collections ed data is really any of tyne government;’s business.what business does the government really have collecting this data on us anyway.  Who cares what then unemployment of poverty rate is, anyway?  

Or rather, wouldn’t this data be better collected by those with an interest in knowing it, like marketing and research firms?  During the last government shutdown, we got a loot at the more fine grained data of Challenger and Christmas, Standard & Poors and others, who had been collecting better data than the government on employment, because they were in constant contact with employers.  Why not just let these guys do it, and save millions on the federal budget.

Three problems with that are consistency and access.  The federal and state government s have the oldest continuous records of employment available, and to compare 1913 with 2013 would be difficult to impossible for a company that didn’t even exist back then.  The handover from public to private record keeping would be onerous at best, and I doubt it would ever evolve beyond a redundant consultancy to the government.  Private companies collecting continuous  private data can generate much better data than government agencies taking monthly surveys, but private companies can also charge for the privilege.  

The availability pif public data for free is transformative to public discussions.  It means that with enough time and skill, people can find out information to support their local or national arguments.  Arguments become a battle of wits, and not finance.

But there is still the nagging truth that our everyday lives are not lived in data.  Our unemployment rate is either 0 or 1005%, our household finances are what they are.  Whether they are balanced is far more important  to our happiness than what the average is, locally or nationwide.  We can all sense the likelihood of crime in an area better than some national abstract statistic or hysterical talking head.

The best I’ve come up with so far is the model of property.  Real Property – land – is a bundle of rights specific to a piece of geography.  Where that land is makes a difference as to what laws will apply to it, and where it will be recorded.  Nothing protects it as your land except the threat of violence should someone infringe your rights.  The convenience of government is that they will contract this duty out to and from you, so you don’t have to maintain a friendly or deadly relationship with all of your neighbors.  Newcomers to town assume that property belongs to someone, and they know where to check to find out who owns what land.  That would not be so easy of every property was defended within a web of relations.  

This is why strangers are so mistrusted in some cultures.  They are a pain in the ass to fit into the landscape of claims.

That’s a pretty minimal definition of what is and is not the government’s business.  The Census has grown from a tally of the populace to a continuous collection on people’s lives, finances, and movements.  I am not sure this is what the founder’s intended, even if I do value the data they collect today.

I just hope they don’t mess with my “means of transportation to work” stats.

*  Whose standing is forever in doubt.