Monday, July 26, 2010

Senseless Census

There's been an immense hue and cry over the government's move to scrap the long census; Canadians, it seems, adore being asked a plethora of silly, intrusive questions. Makes 'em feel helpful and all virtuous-like. As the Globe and Mail's Neil Reynolds writes, thought, completing the questionnaire is an empty ritual, and the form itself is "anachronistic, coercive and unnecessary":
Although anachronistically coercive, this cult aspect of the census helps explain the insurrection that took shape when the federal government decided to expand its voluntary census and get rid of the mandatory long form. This resistance demonstrates once again how exceedingly comfortable people can get with coercion and how dependent they can get on it. It has been fascinating, in a noir kind of way, to watch so many Canadians celebrate the compulsory census. For this squad, the use of force is necessary to determine the average number of bedrooms in the average Canadian home and other such essential truths.
Yet, as The Economist noted, the census is essentially recognized as obsolete in a growing number of countries – a conclusion that arises from the intuitive fact that the world is so filled with statistical data that it would be a greater public service to lessen the quantity than to increase it. Britain will hold its last census next year, as will Germany. Denmark hasn’t had a census for decades. Sweden, Norway and Finland retain only a rudimentary census. With its constitutional requirement of a room-by-room head count, the U.S. government spends $11-billion to count its population – $36 a head. Finland spends 20 cents a head.
People should, as a matter of principle, prefer a voluntary census to a mandatory census. But the reason to scrap the census has nothing much to do with coercion (which is, in fact, minimal) or with cost (which is, in fact, minimal, too). The reason to scrap the mandatory census is that it, along with a great deal of other government fact-finding, is simply not necessary. Indeed, the government should have made this argument. After all, if the most statist countries of Old Europe are abandoning the coercive census, why shouldn’t we get rid of it, too? From this perspective, the government could have defended its decision as, well, liberal and progressive rather than as, well, conservative and reactionary...
Oh, come now, Neil. Do you really think if the "scary" Conservatives had argued that getting rid of the thing was "progressive" anyone in the oppositition parties or the prog media would have bought it? Don't you know it would have been slammed--and dismissed--as sneaky Tory "spin"?

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