This article ran in the Detroit News, the Washington Times (which ran a great cartoon with the piece), and a few other places.
DATELINE: HAMBURG, WEST GERMANY @ June 1987
CIVIL WAR IN WEST GERMANY
by James Bovard
As Goethe said, “The Germans make everything difficult, both for themselves and for everybody else.” West Germany is taking a census this year – the first since l970. But, a routine head-count has turned into an epic battle that epitomizes the schizoid tendencies of contemporary leftism.
Leftists have attacked census takers and seized their questionnaires. In Hamburg, the Chaos Computer Club has vowed to disrupt the census. Leftists have enrolled as census takers as part of a “trojan horse campaign” policy to defeat the government’s efforts with reams of false information.
The “Rumplestilsken movement” and a Data Piracy organization have vowed to bring government statisticians to their knees. One organization warned citizens not to spill coffee on their census form – since that would wreck the government’s computers.
Throughout Germany, old cars and Volkswagon buses are sporting stickers calling for a boycott and showing people’s heads flattened with a computerized bar code. In a Hamburg marketplace, there is a clothesline with a row of torn-up census forms and young people urge passers-by not to answer the government’s questions.
The Green Party – Germany’s left-wing environmentalists – is leading the Census Boycott. The government retaliated by seizing the Green Party’s mail to discover the names of the boycotters. The independence of one of the largest political parties in the country has been flagrantly violated in order to catch a few question dodgers.
The German government is drafting census takers and heavily fining anyone who refuses to go out and ask the government’s questions. (Naturally, many people refuse because the job is dangerous: one adult school even offered a special course in self-defense for census takers.)
Leftists are opposed to the census because they feel that it will result in government collecting too much information on everyone – that the privacy of the data will not be protected – and that it is improper to treat human beings like numbers.
The West German government has a genius for diplomacy. If the government had organized sooner or better, it would not have to conscript census takers. If it had asked fewer questions, it would have gotten more answers. But, it would not be a very good news story if that had happened.
All this controversy brings back fond memories of my work as a census taker in the last Great American Herd Count in 1980. I thought that doing a little stint of government work might correct my political views and give me a proper appreciation of the welfare state. It was a pleasant experience, working in the Ozarks, with every third person telling me how they hated the government and giving me a cold beer.
The U.S. Census Bureau is watching the German carnival with dread. (I pray that no one gets any inspiration for mischief from this column, since unless the government knows how many toilets are in your house, the Department of Housing and Urban Development will not be able to help you.) The 1990 Census could be very, very interesting. And most likely it will be as big a bureaucratic fiasco as the 1980 census.
What I can’t understand is – why do German leftists beat up census takers yet allow tax collectors to go unmolested? The leftists seem to think that it is okay for government to take your money, but an outrage if its asks your name and address.
West Germany has little or no idea how many citizens it has. Germany has the lowest birthrate in the world, and the population is falling each year. And since Germany has some of the most generous pensions in the world, financed out of young workers’ paychecks, the future is ominous. But, if the country is going to drift over a fiscal Niagra Falls, at least the Green Party wants the government to wear a blindfold.
The battle of the German census shows the pervasive schizophrenia of modern leftism – distrust of government combined with a passion for paternalism and dependency. Leftists seem to think that they can be totally dependent on government, but as long as government doesn’t know their name, they will still be free. The Greens don’t want to tell the government how many kids they have, but they want government to promise to feed, clothe, educate, and edify each of the little sausage-chompers.
If the Greens take power, they will likely pass a law recognizing “fear of the dark” as a legimitate disability. combined with a constitutional amendment guaranteeing every citizen a government-provided “nightlight.”
A little civil disobedience can be a good thing. There is much danger in allowing bureaucrats to acquire too much information on private citizens. But, if makes no sense to oppose government questionnaires while favoring government control of anything and everything.