Why libertarians can’t possibly support the census decision

NationalPost.com – Opinion
August 9, 2010.   Stephen Gordon, professor of economics at l’Université Laval

I’ve vowed to bang this drum as loud as I can for as long as I can, so here I go again. I even have some pointed advice for libertarians who still insist on regurgitating the government’s party line.

To resume:

  1. Making the census long form voluntary is still an appallingly stupid idea. There is simply no way that any useful data will emerge from this exercise. This is so fundamental a point that the Chief Statistician resigned rather than let Tony Clement publicly suggest that he and the professionals at Statistics Canada believed otherwise.
  2. Those who claim otherwise either don’t know what they’re talking about, or have sacrificed their professional integrity. Yes, I’m looking straight at the Fraser Institute when I type these lines. As far as I’m concerned, all future FI reports should come with the following disclaimer for journalists: This material should not be cited without the express written approval of someone who knows how to do empirical work. Other pundits might be excused on the grounds of ignorance, in which case I question their editors’ judgment in letting them use valuable media space to reduce public understanding of an important policy issue.

Let’s now turn to the ostensible reason for making the long form voluntary: the well-rehearsed horror at the possibility that someone might be jailed for not revealing the number of bedrooms in their homes. (Can someone explain to me why this is such a big deal? We’re a family of five, with four bedrooms. Have I somehow set myself up for blackmail?)

We should first dispense with the zombie meme of “Many countries have dropped the census, so we can too.” This has been blown away any number of times, but it insists on lumbering across the political landscape in search of brains.

Yes, there are several examples of countries – especially in Scandinavia – that have abandoned the traditional census. These countries maintain databases that keep track of all interactions between the citizen and the State, so a census is simply redundant: the government already knows everything there is to know about you. For example, they know where you live, they know when you moved there (all movements must be registered with the police), and they know from the zoning registries just how many bedrooms and bathrooms you have. They even know your high school trigonometry marks – why bother with a census? If you’re concerned about issues such as privacy and state coercion, these are not counter-examples that you should be citing.

So let’s consider the state of things from a libertarian perspective:

  • If our government was really serious about privacy and state coercion, they wouldn’t be pointing to the Nordic registry model as an alternative to a mandatory census.
  • If, in your mind’s eye, you see yourself storming the Bastille in order to liberate the foes of tyranny, no-one has ever been jailed for not complying with the census. But, as has become crushingly clear over the past few weeks, the census is the irreplaceable cornerstone of evidence-based policy evaluation. Making the census voluntary offers the smallest possible gains in terms of civil liberties, at the greatest possible cost in terms of responsible governance.
  • If you really believed that our government was motivated by libertarian principles, the news from the past couple of days should have disabused you of this notion. It turns out that our freedom-loving government’s highest priority is to build prisons in order to incarcerate those who participate in activities associated with drug trafficking and prostitution. Yes, my libertarian friends, our government is intent on tracking down informed, consenting adults engaging in freely-arrived-at exchanges of goods and services at a mutually-agreed-upon price, and putting them in jail. And thanks to your unflinching support, it can do so in the name of civil rights and freedoms!

It should now be clear that the sweaty-palmed fanboy libertarians who jumped on the anti-census bandwagon are being played like a cheap vuvezela. It didn’t have to be like this. I don’t know what you think you were buying when you decided to support the government, but it seems to me as though you overpaid. If you want to retain whatever remains of your integrity, you should reconsider.

Stephen Gordon is a professor of economics at l’Université Laval in Quebec City, Canada and a fellow of the Centre interuniversitaire sur le risque, les politiques économiques et l’emploi. He is co-author of the blog site, Worthwhile Canadian Initiative < http://worthwhile.typepad.com/ >.

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