One of the least edifying aspects of the census debacle is the government's spin to the effect that that the only people who oppose its decision to make the long form voluntary are 'left-wingers', so their concerns can therefore be dismissed out of hand. One version of this meme takes the form of the argument that sabotaging the census is part of a broader strategy to diminish the importance of government in the lives of Canadians. If there are no data to guide would-be social engineers, so the reasoning goes, then they will be prevented from expanding the reach of the State into new spheres.
This is a puzzling argument, and not only because it is based on a non sequitur. It betrays a fundamental misreading of the history of the Canadian welfare state and of how evidence-based policy analysis has evolved over the past two generations. Before the census became an issue, the Left, not the Right, was the more determined opponent of evidence-based policy analysis.
The census as we know it is relatively recent phenomenon. Before 1971, governments had access to only fragmentary data sets, and the available resources for analyzing them were, by modern standards, rudimentary. But this lack of information was not an obstacle in constructing the basic infrastructure of the Canadian welfare state: its major features - publicly-funded health care, pensions and unemployment insurance - were all established before the modern census. It’s not clear why anyone would believe that depriving the government of data would prevent it from introducing new programs.
Of course, the lack of data did have important implications for the development of the welfare state: it was clumsily-designed and wasteful. As a result, much of the evidence-based policy analysis that has taken place over the past 40 years consists of documenting cases where existing policies were inefficient, ineffective, or even counter-productive.
But here's the odd thing. Instead of being pleased at being offered the opportunity make the welfare state more effective and efficient, the Canadian Left's reaction to these studies consisted of pretending they didn't exist, or of attacking the authors with such pithy epithets as 'corporate apologist'. There are any number of areas where the same debate played out; here are four.
Free Trade: Those of us of a certain age can remember how confidently the opponents of the FTA asserted that its passage would lead to disaster. Of course disaster didn't happen, and the available data - as analysed in Dan Trefler's famous AER article - suggest that its effects had exactly the effect that its proponents predicted: small and positive.
Pay equity laws: These measures are designed to improve the prospects for women in the labour market, and to close the wage gap with men. It turns out that the experiment in Ontario in the early 1990's was largely unsuccessful in attaining these goals.
Employment Insurance. A poorly-designed employment insurance program can be abused, and as I noted in this post, that's exactly what happened before the reforms of the 1990s. To those studies, we can add this one by my former grad school office-mate Jane Friesen, which documents how those reforms produced the predicted behavioural responses.
Social assistance. Economic theory predicts that benefits that are too generous provide a disincentive to find employment, and available data are consistent with the theory.
It would be a stretch to characterise these research programs as being part of a big-government plot, and they were invariably denounced by conventional leftists. Moreover, these denunciations were almost never evidence-based. Evidence-based criticism takes the form of "The study doesn't take X into account. I should incorporate X into the analysis and see if the results are materially affected." Instead, critics would content themselves with "The study doesn't take X into account, so I'm going to squat stubbornly on my original position." In retrospect, trashing the census might be something that you'd expect from a NDP government: as far as they would be concerned, evidence-based policy analysis has been a source of embarrassment.
Of course, none of this lets the Fraser Institute off the hook. Those of you on the FI's e-mail list (I'm pretty sure that usually includes me, but they seem to have forgotten this time) may recall receiving a fund-raising thingy last week; it is reproduced here. If you click on the link to 'academic elites', you get sent to this post of mine here on WCI. Now, there are two things you should know:
- As anyone who *is* part of the economics academic elite will tell you, I'm not one of them. My CV allows me to claim 'respectable' status, but no more.
- My criticism of the Fraser Institute's position is not based on its stated horror of state coercion: de gustibus non est disputandem. What the FI got wrong - unforgivably wrong for an organisation that claims expertise in policy analysis - is the claim that the census decision would have no effect on the quality of the data and hence of the ability of citizens to hold the government accountable for its actions. This is not a matter of opinion; it's a matter of mathematics, data and science. The fact that the Fraser Institute doesn't acknowledge this - and chooses to distort the point its fund-raising campaign - demonstrates that it has no interest in evidence-based policy analysis.
The census decision has been denounced by the evidence-based policy analysis community, but the real test of membership in this group is not opposition to the Harper government's position. It is a willingness to let their policy views be guided by the evidence, and to modify those views if the facts change.