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Thank you Stephen, I hope that it is now clear that this decision was taken without any inherent logic or ideological consistency. This is simply a serious political misstep inspired by god knows what; let's just hope that somebody in the Harper government will admit the error and back down. Honestly, are we going to have an election based on this? Isn't there any other urgent issue that we need to deal with?

I've been watching this from the UK through the WCI in wide eyed wonderment.

What the hell are they doing?

I also worry the Tories here may try to cancel the census after the next one due in the next year. I hope your campaign goes well, as I might need to borrow some of it.

Those who argue that census data should be banned because it is used for 'social engineering' are naive. Do they really think that those who may be engaged in social engineering would stop their mission because of worse data? I don't. I just think they would be more wasteful in going about their business if they had bad data. It wouldn't deter them.

Moreover, if social engineering is the problem, then why doesn't this government just go the direct route and stop the social engineering going on in their government. Instead, they wussily try to do it through the back door by depriving the social engineers of their data.

Finally, why is planning using data 'social engineering'? Private sector guys plan. They use data. (I hope, anyway!) Planning and using data isn't a bad thing in either the private or the public sectors. If there are policies being pursued using these data that you don't like, then be confident enough to oppose those policies directly. Don't blame the data.

John Ibbitson (Monday G&M):

The Conservatives offered a novel justification Sunday for their decision to scrap the mandatory long-form version of the census.

“Canadians don't want the government at their doorstep at 10 o'clock at night while they may be doing something in their bedroom, like reading,” Dimitri Soudas, Stephen Harper’s spokesman, wrote in an e-mail.


But this latest controversy is anything but a laughing matter. Once again the government has tried to slip its conservative base a bone, only to see the initiative blow into a full-fledged furor that paints the Conservatives as disturbingly ideological in the eyes of uncommitted voters.

The question is whether the Tories will ride out this latest imbroglio, convinced that there are more votes to be won than lost, or retreat in the face of united opposition from everyone with a stake in the census.

The government appears most concerned by reports of dissent within the cabinet ranks. Columnists in both The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star have reported that Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Industry Minister Tony Clement, whose department contains Statistics Canada, opposed the census decision. The Globe’s Jeffrey Simpson reported that they wrote letters to that effect, but were overruled by the Prime Minister.

Placating Tory base on the census causes Harper government grief

Jeffrey Simpson, Sat G&M

Last fall, Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided his government would oppose the mandatory long-form census. Since then, nothing has changed his mind. His right-wing ideology and political instinct combined to make a policy that’s being denounced by almost every leading institution and commentator in Canada.

His decision was also opposed inside the government by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and by Industry Minister Tony Clement, who’s responsible for Statistics Canada, the agency that administers the census.

Both wrote to the Prime Minister, underscoring the importance of the mandatory long-form census to compile the most accurate statistics on which so much public policy and private-sector decision-making depends. The issue went back and forth inside the government, but, as with everything in Mr. Harper’s Ottawa, the Prime Minister decides.

PM’s census policy senseless but great for the party

Yeah. As always (see previous thread), anyone who's against coercion and for liberty is a naive, absolutist, utopian kook. Serious People know that to make an omelet, you need to break some eggs. It's pointless to argue the contrary, since statists believe that people are basically masses of protein, carbon and water to be moulded as they see fit. The only real argument is over just how far that moulding should go (Canadian-style socialization through the CBC and public education vs. Soviet-style totalitarian "re-education").

"It's no place for glib, cookie-cutter absolutism."

Sorry, but the sheer arrogance of this statement is infuriating. This is the kind of argument that was made in favour of the bailouts, the Iraq War, the use of torture, and virtually every single other idiotic policy to come along in my adult lifetime. Don't engage people who disagree with you: dismiss and marginalize them as silly and unserious. Of course, I'm not comparing the census to war or torture in the extent to which it infringes on individual freedom. I'm just saying that the condescending argument that "that's an adorable position to take, but this is grown-up time so why don't you go play over there in the corner like a good boy" is insufferable and always inappropriate when you're arguing over basic values and principles.

If you want to use the census to get access to data that you can't collect through voluntary persuasion (either due to costs or the refusal of people to answer your questions, that's fine. But I'd wish you would just say, "I believe that the government should force people to do things that I want them to do but have no way of convincing them do do." Of course, I'd like to point out that a research proposal on which a social scientist proposed to gather data by threatening potential respondents with imprisonment or confiscation of their money would be unlikely to get past an ethics review. Somehow, collecting data in that manner would be unethical but using data gathered by someone else in that manner is OK. And if you think that the difference is that one is legal and the other isn't, pretend that Parliament believes that social science research is so important that it enacts a law that empowers professors at accredited universities to impose the penalties available under the Statistics Act. Still doesn't make it past the ethics review.

The larger point - that it's ridiculous for this government to pretend that it's grounded in libertarian principles - is spot on. Of all the things in all the world to go Murray Rothbard on, I can't believe that the census is what they chose. Utterly insane. It's like beating someone to the death because he stepped on your foot instead of because he killed your family and burned your house to the ground. What a bizarre battle to pick. Better than nothing, but I can think of plenty of things that I wish the government would stop doing more than forcing us to answer census questions. Drug policy, detainee treatment, economic regulation and police powers are just a few of them. This government sickens me, but then again they all do.

Dear me Adam.

Your argument starts from privacy as a right. In Canada and every other democracy, all rights have limits and exceptions. To say otherwise creates logical inconsistencies like crazy. The standard is that those limits are those which are justifiable in a free and democratic society.

The long-form census is what allows us to live in a free and democratic society. And yes, turning over census data to academics is a good thing as it informs public debate. Statistics Canada keeps your personal details private. The macro data, however, is public, as it should be.

My argument has little to do with privacy. It has more to do with the one right we have as human beings: the right to be left to live our lives in peace, free from coercion.

Any exception to that right should be phrased as follows: "People should be forced to [insert action] under threat of being thrown in a cage or having their property seized because..."

And the idea that the long-form census is what allows us to live freely is... interesting. Please elaborate, with at least broad and general empirical evidence from history.

Because it allows us to make informed decisions on based on what the country actually looks like.

Because it allows us to intelligently shape riding boundaries as I illustrated with Toronto in the previous post.

Because it shows us to know whether support programs like the CMHC actually work and how they have worked over 50 years. Or Medicare, or education, or how bilingualism under the Charter is working.

Because every debate on health care ultimately comes down to census data.

Because markets can and do fail, or produce undesirable results like recessions and we need the government sector to level things out. Every western country has reached this consensus since WWII. We really don't need to rehash the debates of the 1930's all over again.

It's an issue of epistemology. How do we know that our policy decisions are working? Census data. The welfare state is all about average quality-of-life.

"It has more to do with the one right we have as human beings: the right to be left to live our lives in peace, free from coercion."

This is not a right that you're born with, it is granted to you, to a limited extent, by the government of the society that you live in.

Enforcing this right on your behalf requires the government to limit it in others, just as the government limits it, to some extent, to you on behalf of others. What if someone, in the course of living their life free of coercion wishes to kill you and take what you have? The government uses coercion, the threat of imprisonment, to dissuade them.

How the government trades off your rights against doing what is necessary on behalf of others will always have points of debate, such absolutist arguments don't help us come to a decision in that respect.

My point here is that if you don't want to be treated as an absolutist, utopian kook then don't act like one.

Determinant, your standard for what's required before you're entitled to hit someone or steal his property is remarkably low ("Because every debate on health care ultimately comes down to census data" - we can use violence because it's useful in policy discussions? That's frightening.).

Adam P: "This is not a right that you're born with, it is granted to you, to a limited extent, by the government of the society that you live in."

So, in other words, people born in, say, North Korea don't have any right to live freely. They weren't born with it, the state doesn't recognize it, ergo they have no rights to violate. In fact, by this logic, it is literally impossible for any state to violate a person's rights. After all, if the state is doing something to you then it by definition does not recognize your right to not have that thing done to you. Human rights violations simply cannot occur.

"What if someone, in the course of living their life free of coercion wishes to kill you and take what you have? The government uses coercion, the threat of imprisonment, to dissuade them."

My comments on another post (a few days ago) made it clear that the one circumstance under which I could live with the use of force is in self-defence against someone who initiates it. So I have no problem with, say, throwing Paul Bernardo in a cage or taking (what's left of) Bernie Madoff's property.

I'll repeat it for the nth time: your factural claims about the welfare state are simply not beyond debate. But I suppose that so much as questioning that premise is a sign of lunacy. Can't have anyone arguing that, say, the New Deal prolonged the Great Depression. Or point out, say, that FDR campaigned against Hoover on the grounds that *Hoover* was a dangerous socialist under whom government was running amok and had to be stopped. Or that Rex Tugwell said later on in life that the New Deal was pretty much just a continuation of Hoover's policies. Nope. There's the evil capitalist Hoover who let the masses starve while government fiddled, and the grand saviour FDR who heroically created the welfare state that saved us all.

The sad thing is that I haven't even said that the census must go because it's an outrageous breach of human rights. All I've said is that the use of coercion is wrong and anytime we restrict a human being's rights by using force against him, a heavy burden lies on us to justify that action. But you people are tossing around the use of violence like it's nothing at all, totally justified every time someone has a hunch that it's useful.

Adam, we can agree that it is tragic and immoral that people living in North Korea have not been granted by their government as many rights as we have been granted by ours. Nonetheless, your freedoms are still granted to you by some organization/government that decides under what circumstances to take them away.

Now, does that mean there is no such thing as a Human Rights Violation? No, but that's because there is an international organization that grants (if not always enforces) a set of human rights. Those rights are limited, for example they don't forbid a combatant being killed in the prosecution of a "legal" war (somehow defined). Do we conclude from then that soldiers are not humans?

Adam P, you're twisting yourself into a logical pretzel. Let me simplify matters for you. People are born with the right to live free from violence and coercion. This right may or may not be recognized by others, but it exists all the same. That's all there is to say, really.

I could add, though, that rights are NOT granted by the state or some anonymous "international organization" (I really have no idea what you're talking about there - did people not have any rights before the UN (or whatever organization you mean) existed?). And a soldier has the right to life, even if someone sitting behind a desk decides to send him off somewhere to kill or be killed.

And I have to insist that if rights really are granted by the state, then it's impossible for a person's human rights to be violated by the government. Literally so.

More cynically I'd say that the reason the Harperite cons want to trash the mandatory long-form census is because they don't want any accurate record keeping on their accomplishments as a government (or lack thereof). They want to ultimately USE the bias the voluntary nature of the new census will create to say that "it is not representative of the reality of Canada because its a biased sample...everyone knows that its biased". Doublespeak is what these guys are good at...witness their previous outrage at Proroguing parliament when they were in the opposition.

Sometimes, I get angry at my kids, and I yell at them, and then I threaten them that if they don't do as I say, "I'll take away,... I'll take away..." and then I realize that they are misbehaving because I haven't given them much reason recently to care what I think.  Maybe I haven't had much time to play with them or read them long stories before they go to bed.  In fact, maybe I can think of nothing good that I was about to do with them, so I can't think of anything to peacefully take away.  Under those circumstances one could try violence, I suppose, but that, of course, doesn't seem likely to produce more cooperation in the long run.  And maybe it's my own behaviour that needs to change.

So maybe we need to realize that if people feel disenfranchised and ignored they aren't going to cooperate with you.  And the threat of violence isn't going to make it any better.  Like my kids, I suspect that if they feel coerced, angry census takers are going to lie just to defy you. So why not pay them instead?  If we had a citizen's dividend/wage (and we should for a variety of reasons to long to discuss here) we could just dock people for failing to fill out the long form, vote, whatever.  But without that, how about we pay people a bit of money for the inconvenience instead of threatening them.  We pay jurors, why not form fillers?  $10-$20 ought to do the trick and, unlike the $30 million that the government proposes to waste on expanding the size of the survey, is actually likely to improve the quality.  But it's a question of efficiency and utility, not a question of rights.  Those $10-$20 dollars would still originate from taxes levied, you guessed it, under the threat of violence.  If you want a system of government that is free of that threat, we will have to travel a very far way indeed, from the system that we have today.

"Adam P, you're twisting yourself into a logical pretzel. Let me simplify matters for you. People are born with the right to live free from violence and coercion. This right may or may not be recognized by others, but it exists all the same. That's all there is to say, really.

That's a statement, made from a set of highly contentious assumptions. Not at all self-evident.

"And I have to insist that if rights really are granted by the state, then it's impossible for a person's human rights to be violated by the government. Literally so."

The government grants the rights XYZ and sets them in legislation. Rights deemed more fundamental are often embedded in the constitution. The government can violate those rights, but can be brought to account by the courts. That's the modern state. And yes, broader international human rights are made through international commitments via UN. When states ignore those commitments, they are in breach of what are considered human rights.

And yes, it should be completely obvious that the notion of human rights has changed and expanded historically. Any reading of history from Aristotle through Hobbes to modern thought (socialist, liberal, left/right libertarian) should make that point crystal clear.

On twitter I've been following both the census debate and the crazy statements of the day from Sarah Palin. The two are starting to sound alike.

This actually makes me sad. Although ideologically I don't see eye-to-eye with the Fraser Institute, until now I think they've been an important part of the debate, especially in BC (I live in Vancouver so bump into them and their ideas a lot). Efforts to benchmark and measure government programs like healthcare and education, for example, are worthwhile, even if I don't agree with every data point tracked. They have introduced data and ideas to the public policy debate that otherwise might not have been discussed.

But dismissing the long form of the census, upon which their own analysis and that of so many organizations from all over the political spectrum depend, suggests they've taken a step toward the Sarah Palin right wing camp of just make stuff up to suit your ideology, where knowledge and data do not matter anymore.

An unfortunate turn of events. Like the CPC, I hope they find a way to reverse course on this path.

Dean, as a matter of legal history, the doctrine that rights are granted by the state is a latecomer. The traditional principle is set out by Bracton: the king (the state) is subject to the law because the law makes the king. Until Hobbes, that position was basically undisputed.

If you look at the Canadian Charter, it specifically says it does not derogate from pre-existing rights.

It's true that our legal tradition recognized the sovereignty of Parliament, and traditionally denied any judicial power to question a statute duly enacted. But that does not mean that rights derive from legislation, only that prior to 1982, legislation could take them away without judicial remedy.

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