My Thoughts on the Census

Posted on August 8, 2010

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The letters section of the Globe and Mail is a wonderful source of blog-fodder. For any given political issue, it presents a useful survey of the arguments being made for and against any given course of action. It is also an excellent source of terrible puns, but that’s beside the point.

Over the last few weeks, the letters page has been full of talk about the census. Most of the letters are staunchly in favour of keeping mandatory long-form census, but every now and then one rehashes the same old argument in favour of the conservatives’ plan to eliminate it. One such example appeared in yesterday’s paper:

I am somewhat amazed at the sheer number of letters The Globe and Mail has continued to print in support of the census in its current form. Where are the people who don’t like being threatened with jail time if they don’t fess up to all sorts of intimate details, on paper, on time? There are plenty out there, I think, or the Prime Minister’s Office wouldn’t be so foolish as to suggest they be appeased.

Call me retrograde, but I don’t like being threatened, even if it somehow helps us as a nation to know how many of us might need whatever it might be in the future. The truth is that for anyone who fills out a tax return, has a health card or pays municipal taxes, one level of government or another has more information on you, your family, your income, your habits and the minutiae of your health than most of us would be comfortable contemplating.

Sara Alexander, Oakville, Ont.

Sara Alexander raises an entirely valid concern. What right does the federal government have to employ coercion to extract highly personal information from its citizens? It is easy to see an authoritarian streak in the mandatory census.

But what is the alternative? In the interests of privacy and small government, we could slash the census and make it voluntary. The problem is that there is no incentive you could offer which would appeal equally to all people. The information gained from the census would therefore be inaccurate. The ability of the government to ascertain the state of the nation would be significantly compromised.

So it seems that we have two options, which both have their downsides. The simple way to deal with this is a simple utilitarian analysis. We can either have a violation of privacy, or a government plagued by statistical blindness. Which is worse?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, in the grand scheme of things, privacy is not all that important. The violation of privacy caused by the census does not put us at significant risk for identity theft, political repression, or any other tangible harm. Don’t get me wrong. Having some bureaucrat read over my personal details gives me the creeps. But that’s all it does.

The consequences of an uninformed government, on the other hand, involve tangible harm. Bad information leads to bad policy, which harms people. For example, Stockwell Day’s reliance on the bad information provided by his overactive imagination could very well result in more Canadians being jailed.

I sympathize with people like Sara Alexander, but their concerns are mostly academic. If the Conservatives get their way, however, a lot of problematic trends will emerge due to bad policy, and we will have no idea that they exist. The government will have blinded itself, and people will suffer as a result. That possibility is far worse than anyone’s discomfort at having their information entered into a government database.

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