Census too intrusive

Printer-friendly version
Appeared in Financial Post, July 2010

Academics, economists, and other social scientists across the country are up in arms about the Conservative government's recent decision to replace the mandatory long-form census with a new voluntary survey. Since these are heavy users of the long-form data, their widespread opposition to the government's decision is not surprising.

Canadians, however, would be wise to challenge the prevailing wisdom of this vested interest group. After all, most of these same elites recently came to another ill-formed consensus: that massive government stimulus was needed to combat the recession. This occurred despite the overwhelming evidence that shows stimulus spending to be ineffective.

A sober second look at the mandatory long-form census is clearly needed.

Any discussion about the Canadian census ought to begin with its original purpose, which, following Confederation in 1867, was to count the population to determine appropriate representation by population in the new Parliament. In other words, the federal government needed an estimate of the number of people in each region to apportion the seats in Parliament. To that end, the census was critical to our representative democracy.

But today's census goes well beyond simply asking how many people live at each household.

Take the short census questionnaire which is completed by 80% of all households and requires Canadians to answer questions about their location, gender, age, marital status, first language learned, and relationships among those living in their household. While some of these questions are justified, much of the information is already collected through other methods such as annual income tax returns, passports, driver licenses, social insurance numbers, and birth certificates. For instance, every year 90% of Canadians over 20 years of age complete income tax returns.

The long-form questionnaire, over which the debate is currently raging, is a truly intrusive instrument. Here the government forces Canadians to disclose a host of information about their private lives such as what languages they speak on a regular basis; whether they are White, Chinese, South Asian, Black, Filipino or a host of other ethnicities; where they work; how they get to work (i. e. bike, car, walk, taxi); what language they speak on the job; how much housework they do; how much time they spend playing with their kids or talking to their elders; whether or not they have any difficulty walking, climbing stairs, or bending; which member of the household pays the rent or mortgage; how many rooms their homes have (and how many are bedrooms); and whether or not their homes have any missing or loose floor tiles, defective steps or more major deficiencies like defective plumbing.

In total, the long-form census requires Canadians to complete 40 burdensome pages of intrusive personal questions. Canadians are forced to disclose this information without good cause. The census has simply become a cheap way for academics, economists, and social scientists to get information that should be acquired using market surveys of the kind that are routinely collected on a voluntary basis.

Suppose for a moment that no long-form census existed. On what merit would the academics argue that the government should force Canadians to disclose how much time each of us spends bathing or playing with young children, driving children to sports activities, or helping them with homework.

Indeed, it would be truly interesting to see the reaction of the Canadian populace if the federal government was for the first time proposing that Canadians be forced to check off whether they are White, Black, Asian or Arab.

While intrusive, some proponents of a mandatory long-form claim Canadians need this information to hold governments to account. For instance, the C.D. Howe Institute recently noted that Statistics Canada's information -- much of it based on the long-form census -- is an essential tool for Canadians seeking to ensure that the state's use of its vast powers is effective and benign. However, it's hard to see how informing the government of my home's defective plumbing and peeling paint will help keep the government leviathan in check.

Of course, increased government accountability is critical. But in situations where governments intervene in the private lives of Canadians through its various and expansive programs (i. e., health care, education, welfare, etc.), a true test of effectiveness must be based on outcomes.

For example, it is critical to determine whether governments deliver health care services to Canadians in a timely manner. Historically, however, governments were unwilling to collect this sort of data. In fact, the lack of available data is what prompted the Fraser Institute to begin surveying Canadian doctors to determine how long Canadians wait for key medical services.

In the field of education, governments for years collected data on student performance through standardized tests. Again, the data were not readily available for public consumption in an easy to digest manner. It was not until 1997, when the Fraser Institute started providing the information to parents on a school-by-school basis, that Canadians were able to judge the performance of government-run schools.

While the current census data are no doubt interesting for academics, economists and planners who wish to analyze social and economic trends, it is rife with intrusive questions that the government has no business forcing Canadians to answer.

Subscribe to the Fraser Institute

Get the latest news from the Fraser Institute on the latest research studies, news and events.