One of the best things a government can do is produce public goods—non-excludable, non-rivalrous things that everyone can share and share alike and that will tend to be underproduced or underconsumed in a free market. The American Community Survey, a kind of supplemental census that gives us information about commuting, income, family structure, educational attainment, housing stock and housing finance, and other population and neighborhood characteristics is one great example. Did you know that men are more likely to carpool while women are more likely to take public transportation? Or that men have longer commutes (measured by time) than women? Well I do. Because I just looked it up. And because the American Community Survey collected and disseminated the information.
Unfortunately, there was a move by House Republicans to kill it off last year and Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) is back for another try.
It’s all really unfortunate. Businesses and researchers alike take advantage of this kind of information all the time, and even though it isn’t the absolute biggest deal in the world it’s exactly the kind of thing the private sector can’t do efficiently. Even if all the same data was collected, it would end up being done so at greater cost through multiple overlapping efforts. Then the data would need to be sold to people, and there’d be deadweight loss from those who can’t afford subscriptions. In small and medium ways, we’d all end up worse off.