Skip to main content

Le stat, to paraphrase Louis XIV, c'est moi. Statistics have always been synonymous with the state, the more efficiently either to tax the people or to conscript them. In an editorial commentary last week, The Economist magazine traced the obligatory census to God's instructions to Moses that he prep for war by counting his people. Fortunately, the census is no longer a strictly military exercise. Hence we have no need for a wartime draft to accomplish it. Canada's mandatory census is mostly an institutional tradition whose purpose lurks in the forgotten past - something like Guy Fawkes Day. We compel people to fill census forms, in other words, mostly because it's something we do, a ritual we perform.

Although anachronistically coercive, this cult aspect of the census helps explain the insurrection that took shape when the federal government decided to expand its voluntary census and get rid of the mandatory long form. This resistance demonstrates once again how exceedingly comfortable people can get with coercion and how dependent they can get on it. It has been fascinating, in a noir kind of way, to watch so many Canadians celebrate the compulsory census. For this squad, the use of force is necessary to determine the average number of bedrooms in the average Canadian home and other such essential truths.

Yet, as The Economist noted, the census is essentially recognized as obsolete in a growing number of countries - a conclusion that arises from the intuitive fact that the world is so filled with statistical data that it would be a greater public service to lessen the quantity than to increase it. Britain will hold its last census next year, as will Germany. Denmark hasn't had a census for decades. Sweden, Norway and Finland retain only a rudimentary census. With its constitutional requirement of a room-by-room head count, the U.S. government spends $11-billion to count its population - $36 a head. Finland spends 20 cents a head.

People should, as a matter of principle, prefer a voluntary census to a mandatory census. But the reason to scrap the census has nothing much to do with coercion (which is, in fact, minimal) or with cost (which is, in fact, minimal, too). The reason to scrap the mandatory census is that it, along with a great deal of other government fact-finding, is simply not necessary. Indeed, the government should have made this argument. After all, if the most statist countries of Old Europe are abandoning the coercive census, why shouldn't we get rid of it, too? From this perspective, the government could have defended its decision as, well, liberal and progressive rather than as, well, conservative and reactionary.

The European consensus is that the census simply isn't necessary. It seems that computers can collect data much more efficiently by conversing directly with databanks - and much more factually, too. (Britain determined from its last census, incidentally, that 0.7 per cent of all Britons are Jedi knights.) But there is a deeper mystery here, an authentic subversion: a tentative recognition that decision-making by data requires a never-ending supply of further data. (How much crawl space exists in the average Canadian home?) The fact is that we will never get enough data. With all that's now available, economists still cannot anticipate the next recession - let alone the next depression.

The all-knowing state is not necessary, either. Friedrich Hayek, the great Austrian economist and Nobel Prize winner, argued that the most competent decision-maker is the decentralized decision-maker - the person who solves his or her own problems based on his or her own knowledge: the people "on the spot."

In his or her own way, Hayek argued, every human holds a unique store of authentic knowledge. A centralized planner can equal the competence of the decentralized decision-maker only by accumulating the total knowledge of every human - an impossible assignment, even with the assistance of coercion.

In The Use of Knowledge in Society, his famous essay on the dangers of excessive reliance on data as the basis for government decision-making, Hayek quotes British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead: "It is a profoundly erroneous truism … that we should cultivate the habit of thinking what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the important operations which we can perform without thinking about them."

Hayek held that prices were the most important statistic of all. If the price mechanism had been invented by deliberate human design, he said, "it would have been acclaimed as one of the greatest triumphs of the human mind." It wasn't invented by human design, of course - but rather by people "on the spot." All the census information ever gathered can't produce a single price as accurately as a few people haggling at a flea market.

StatsCan chief Munir Sheikh has now fallen on his sword, a dramatic but irrelevant sacrifice to coercion. In point of fact, census or not, StatsCan't.