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Friday, July 16, 2010

WS on the census: Government Information Theft

Here's my two bits on the Census, along with P.M. Jaworski, Walter BlockJ.J. McCulloughTerrence Watson, Martin Masse and Hugh MacIntyre (so far!):

Those defending the Census' mandatory long form have clothed their arguments in the public interest. We need, they argue, a detailed, fair and statistically accurate count of the population to ensure that government services and programs are effectively delivered to Canadians. Without going into how useful many of these programs really are, let's agree that the Census provides an enormously valuable store of data. Data that is used not only by all three levels of government, but also market researchers, academics, corporations and charities.  

The data gathered by the Census is a vital resource for both the public and private sector. But it is not the only valuable product or service used by governments. Governments also large use large quantities cemment, asphalt, paper, sophisticated electronic equipment and the services of tens of thousands of Canadians. Yet it is expected that government pay for these products and services, from Canadians who voluntarily exchange their talents and energies.  

If employees of the federal government started randomly seizing cement trucks, or conscripting people off the streets to build roads, such conduct would be rightly denounced. It would be the sort of behaviour one expects of thugs like Hugo Chavez or Fidel Castro, not the government of a free country like Canada. The Census, for the all the recent beating of breasts and furrowing of brows, is just another service the government needs to conduct its affairs. 

A mandatory cenus is less about some hazy notion of the public interest, and more about governments, corporations, academics and other consumers of Census data getting a free ride. Rather than having to conduct their own research, and make careful adjusts to compensate for possible distortions between samples and the overall popualtion, these data consumers get the government to force ordinary Canadians to save them the bother. 

So that governments and corporations can avoid some extra hassle, the freedom of all Canadians is infringed. It's a small infringement, but an infringement nontheless. The fact that the Census has been mandatory for decades, and is common practice in other countries, doesn't make it right. Arguing over the Census, to many Canadians, seems like a quibble. It doesn't take much time. True, but it's the principle of a mandatory Census that matters. 

Our private information belongs to us. We have a right not to be forced to surrender that information, and certainly not because it would make the lives of Statistics Canada bureaucrats easier. If the government needs our private information, they can ask nicely, and if that doesn't work they can pay for our information (as many market research firms do already), and if we say no, they should accept our no. In Canada the government works for us, not the other way around.

Posted by Richard Anderson on July 16, 2010 in Census | Permalink


At the very least it is an invasion of privacy, as anyone lucky enough to receive the long forms can confirm. Even the short form remains however an invasion of privacy, which is why the mandatory aspect, at least, must be scrapped.

Posted by: Alain | 2010-07-16 9:26:20 PM

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