Four Reasons, No explanation

The census controversy keeps on trucking.  Courts rule.  Compromises are proposed.  Resolutions are considered.  It just won’t go away.  So why does the Government’s decision stand and why was it taken in the first place?  How, in other words, did we get here?  What follows are several explanations, each of which I have given a political label.  These should only be taken as markers.  In today’s political landscape,  one needs a road map to discern the differences among liberals, neo-conservatives, minarchists, paleo-conservatives and even left and right – but here goes.

1) The libertarian Argument

The most articulate support for canning the mandatory long form has come from self-described libertarians and minarchists, who echo the longstanding U.S. protests against the “big brother census”.  Drawing on the Government’s statements that the state should not use its coercive power to ask for private information,  they describe the decision as a step, however small, in taking on the ever larger, ever more powerful, paternal state.  Their arguments have the advantage of internal consistency:  they see the state, specifically its monopoly on the legitimate use of force,  as the biggest threat to personal liberty, and therefore want to replace the state with voluntary approaches or at least limit its role to protecting individual rights and freedoms.

The census has been a particular bugaboo of libertarians for some time for two main reasons: because it is mandatory and, therefore, by definition, relies on the state’s coercive power; and because it enables the state to interfere with our lives and has therefore contributed to its growth.  Statistics and the state have developed together; as our economy and society have become more complex, diverse and volatile, the role and reach of the state has grown as have the role and importance of official  statistics.

I expect that libertarians would readily admit that they are a small minority in Canada.  While distrust of government is growing, most of us would not support their vision.  We would worry that only the rich and powerful would benefit from removing government regulations, for example,  and most of us take comfort from knowing that we all have access to education and that compulsory insurance protects us when we are ill or in trouble and contributes to our freedom in retirement – even if these programs work imperfectly.  As Martin Wolf points out, the only available examples of “statelessness'” are pretty scary.  Closer to home, we have seen recently the results of the great deregulation experiment and the erosion of social protections – and we didn’t much like it.

On the other hand, most of us, me included, do worry about the over-big, over-powerful state and how best to contain it.  Perhaps we don’t worry enough.  The past decade seems to have conditioned us to the state’s greater reliance on force and the threat this poses to our civil liberties, witness the  police video cameras recording the movements of ordinary citizens or mass arrests to deal with a handful of vandalising protesters in Toronto or the trial of Omar Khadr, inspite of what the courts have said, or  death by taser.  And we are seeing ever more reliance on the coercive criminal law power – more laws, tougher penalties – even for consensual crimes that many libertarians would want  left to personal and community decision, and even where the evidence says that our greater reliance on incarceration will reduce safety.  As Chris Selley argues, in an excellent and powerful piece that cuts across ideology and party,  we should be more than concerned about the threats to our civil liberties,  we should be outraged –  and,  he adds, not just on behalf of the people we like, but equally for those we despise.

But as for the census decision, the libertarian argument doesn’t hold.  Quite simply,  ours is not a “libertarian government”, witness its commitment to building up the security state.    This census decision is not a step in dismantling the coercive state.  Yes, we should be concerned about the expansion of the state’s use of its coercive powers and the threat posed to our rights and freedoms, not least our privacy – but surely the census –  a few questions in a questionnaire for a few minutes once or twice in our lifetime when privacy is fully protected  – is not the threat. (Dan Gardner’s charmingly satirical piece puts the issue in perspective.)  This cannot possibly be the reason for the government’s decision. It doesn’t fit the facts.

2)The Neo-Conservative Argument

The neo-con argument is a variant of the libertarian view but focuses on social and economic policy.    For the purpose at hand, I am thinking of those who argue for low taxes, minimal regulation and reduced government involvement in social policy.  In Canada, this combines belief in the efficiency of the market,  subsidiarity which brings decisions as close to those affected as possible, and to some extent what George Lakoff describes as “the strict father approach” to social assistance – it’s a tough, competitive world and hand outs make people weaker and therefore hurt them in the long run.

This is the legacy of the Thatcher-Reagan era and the tough economic times that preceded them and it has influenced almost all politics, especially in English-speaking democracies.  At its extreme,  its adherents see the social safety net built largely after the second world war as a terrible mistake that has to be undone.    The programs and institutions of the welfare state or, for those who prefer, the nanny state,  took us off course; they are an aberration that drove big government and high taxes,  undermined self-reliance and initiative,  and inhibited economic growth.   In any case,  in a federation, social policy is a matter for local or provincial governments if not community, church and charity.

Paul Wells effectively makes the case that the census decision was about dismantling the welfare state and  this does seem to be what some of the defenders of the decision are saying.  Attacking the statistics is attacking the nanny state.   The growth of statistics is inextricably linked to the growth of these social programs.   Past governments had used statistics on inequities to justify ever more interventions.  The information that Statistics Canada produces is used by every level of government to design and deliver programs,  by the voluntary sector to fill the gaps in areas where government cannot or does not act, and by citizens to hold their governments to account and to make the case for policy change or new action. Cutting off the statistics is like cutting off the oxygen.

But frankly, if this is the reason, it really doesn’t make much sense and is, in any case, pretty anti-democratic. First of all, the programs are too valued by most Canadians to disappear so easily.  They will probably become less efficient and less effective without information but that cannot be the goal.  Furthermore, surely those who believe that social programs are damaging to our well-being are just as interested in credible and reliable evidence to make their case.  You would think that all sides of the debate would want good information to test their assumptions and  “prove” their case.  But just maybe Paul Wells is right and this is a backdoor way of contributing to the erosion of social programs because popular sentiment makes the front door approach impossible.  Instead of eliminating programs, then, starve them of the resources, information and credibility and trust they need.  Over time, they will be harder to justify and easier to eliminate.  But this is not how democracy is supposed to work.  Let’s have the debate.  Let’s engage Canadians.  And let’s make sure they have credible and reliable information to help them decide.

3) The Populist Argument

History has given us many versions of populism of the right or of the left and sometimes some combination, often channeling the anger at those perceived to hold all the cards and who we blame for our hardship.  At best they can contribute to real democratization.  At worst they can lead to scapegoating and profound social cleavage.  I leave a real discussion of populism to another day.  Here I’m talking about a particular contemporary version, maybe better described as a “faux populism” that masks an anti-intellectual, anti-expert sentiment that seems to be carrying some sway.

Some of the defenders of the Government’s decision suggest that the census data are only of interest to special interests and elites by whom they seem to mean public servants, policy workers. researchers, statisticians and journalists.  (Wow, it looks like just about anybody can become one of the élite today.)  This false populism divides the world up into “ordinary hard-working Canadians” who pay taxes and “experts and knowledge workers, ” elites,” who receive taxes.  This preys on and feeds the growing distrust of government.  Public servants and the experts that governments and corporations depend on become easy targets.  Education and expertise are ridiculed.  What a patronizing, divisive and dangerous  view of the world.  Why dangerous?  Here, I commend  to you John Geddes on the emergence of this anti-knowledge, anti-expert strain of conservatism and Andrew Coyne on its dumbing down effect.  We see it at play in crime policy; we see it in how quickly climate change deniers jumped on the tiniest crack in the science; we see it in the decision on the GST; we see it in the census decision.

Whether this anti-knowledge strain reflects a populist theory of knowledge as Paul Saurette has suggested or the triumph of ideology and power over knowledge, it’s not the way to go.  Empirical evidence is not the only path to truth; it is neither perfect nor certain but it is essential for policy and for democracy.  We need reliable, public information to keep government in check, to push government and to push it back, to protect us from arbitrariness and blind ideology. There’s nothing elitist about valuing expertise and information.

4) The Pragmatic Argument

Finally, there’s the argument that this decision is a compromise,  a balancing of competing values and, in any case, not that big a deal, “a molehill.”  On the latter issue, if it’s not all that important, why do this in the first instance and then persist in the face of opposition from seven provinces, big and small municipalities, religious leaders, and almost every segment of Canadian society?  If it’s a trivial sideshow why spend the political capital and, for that matter, many additional millions of dollars?   As for the so-called compromise, it doesn’t work.  That’s what all the experts tell us (see Argument 3 above.)

The arguments don’t hold.  That’s why, as Armine Yalnizyan says, this issue has more legs than a bucket of chicken.  Why the decision?  Absent a clear explanation, the speculation will continue.  The decision has become a metaphor – for something.

3 Responses to “Four Reasons, No explanation”
  1. Here is where Harper is coming from re: his census decision (since you are so very, VERY C O N F U S E D):

    a) He’s expanding defense and prison spending. He doesn’t want to be seen to be ‘strong-arming’ the public (though he is gonna do just that to the populace that peddles drugs small time or works in the sex trade);

    b) He’ll be up for re-election in 2012 (most likely). That’s how long it will take the Liberals to put Iggy out of his misery and replace him with a contender Harper has to reckon with. He doesn’t want nasty census driven headlines like “Stagnating Middle Class” and “Astounding gap between the rich and the poor” to surface during his election year.

    Put a) and b) together and you have his census decision. It’s working! Most people breathed a little sigh of relief that there wasn’t going to be a knock on the door this year that could send them to jail and they trust/like him a little more. And statistical authority of the type that could damn his government’s performance is quashed for good!

    Harper’s ‘war on knowledge’ is incidental to this census fracas. He’s gonna do data mining (according to Stockwell Day) and he’ll know all he needs to know to govern. It’s really our privacy rights — those disclaimers on our tax returns and medical records — that are at risk here. Yet while we all scratch our heads and pretend we don’t really know that this is about Harper playing electoral politics the REAL ISSUE has zero play. So who is dumb? I say it’s the folks who are still scratching their heads. Time to wake up!!

  2. joeblow says:

    “The arguments don’t hold” is an interesting remark and may be the key to answering the question Mr. Himelfarb poses at the end of his article, namely what does the decision to cancel the long-form census symbolize?

    Sometimes when we say to someone that their arguments don’t hold, we are indicating that they are acting without reason, in perhaps an arbitrary or personal way. This happens for instance, when we find someone making a decision that is racist or sexist. By showing the inconsistency in their reasoning, we lay bare the arbitrary and indeed abusive form of behaviour that is hiding behind their apparent reasons and justifications.

    The symbol of cancelling the long-form census seems to me to be not about reasons at all — whether they be libertarian, neo-conservative, populist or pragmatic – but rather about the absence of reasons. That is, it may be that the decision reveals that there is something arbitrary and indeed something personal, disguising itself as democratic government in Canada. I have the feeling that Mr. Himelfarb would actually prefer that the census decision WAS made for libertarian or neo-conservative reasons because then he could actually debate them.

    “The arguments don’t hold” suggests something far more pernicious, namely that the country is being reshaped by a small group of people acting in private on their personal (and often vindictive) instincts, and precisely not their publicly offered, contestable political reasons. What the census decision symbolizes then is something profoundly undemocratic at the heart of our government.

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