Bullshit, and the Ironic Invalidity of the Census Debate

July 29, 2010 by  

“It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” – Professor Harry G. Frankfurt, “On Bullshit”, pp. 55-56.

The ironic truth is that a debate focusing largely upon the validity of census data is comprised of so much bullshit as to make the debate itself invalid. Witnesses and Parliamentary Members at committee hearings, columnists, and even those who write letters to the editors of our vestigial newspapers have decided that the this issue – more than most others – demands that all concern over truth and falsehood must be abandoned if the debate is to be resolved favourably.  The debate has turned even serially honest thinkers, writers and speakers into at least second-class bullshitters for the purposes of either backing or opposing the Conservative government’s decision to make completion of the long form census voluntary; to repeal laws that impose penalties of fine or imprisonment for failing or refusing to fill out the long form census and remit it to government.

In the hope that participants might choose to stop bullshitting, and instead state clearly what they want, why they want it, and who they think ought to be footing the bill for what they want, I provide, below, a short-list of seven of the most salient and high-profile bullshit submissions upon which decision makers are likely to rely due to pressure from their constituents (who are the intended victims of all of this bullshittery).   I conclude with a succinct description of the real issues that the bullshit arguments are designed to bury or obfuscate.

Bullshit Submission #1: “The fact of the matter is that we [made the decision to make the long form census voluntary] on a principled basis, that we wanted to balance off the interests of those Canadians who are worried about this with the desire [of users of the data] for more and more data.” – Conservative MP Tony Clement, Industry Minister, at the July 27, 2010 meeting of the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology (hereinafter referred to as the “SCIST Hearing”).

This claim is bullshit for at least two reasons.  First, the Conservatives clearly are not acting on any “principled basis”.  A principle is a fundamental truth of general application.  For example: “Government must use coercion only to prevent the violation of individuals’ lives, liberty, and property” is a principle.  At the SCIST Hearing, Clement represented that “…we should encourage people and use non-coercive methods if we want data from them and that’s simply our position”.  This is, in my view, was a wording (i.e., “non-coercive methods”) deliberately chosen to lure the sympathies or loyalties of those who think that government ought never to use force other than to defend every person’s own life, liberty, and property.  It is a wording chosen to suggest, falsely, that Conservatives have a principled objection to government coercing the governed with respect to acts and omissions that harm nobody.   But, as even the Liberal MPs on the SCIST panel were quick to point out, the Conservatives are not consistent on their allegedly “principled” stance against coercive methods.   Most damaging to the Conservatives’ claim to principle is the simple and painful fact that the Conservatives are proposing that fines and imprisonment continue to be imposed with respect to those who refuse to fill out the short form of the census (not to mention the fact that the Conservatives have no qualms about threatening Canadians will fines and imprisonment with respect to refusals to file income tax returns).

Second, it is now clear that I was called upon by the Liberals to be a witness at the SCIST hearings on July 27th.  It is equally obvious that I was chosen because of what I wrote on both the Western Standard’s Shotgun blog and on my own blog on July 17, 2010 (the general thrust being that the decision to make the long form voluntary was little more than an attempt to bring “libertarians” and other objectors who oppose government coercion into, or back into, the Conservative fold).  It is similarly obvious that the Liberals chose me as a representative of “libertarians” or others who are the targets of the Conservative pandering to which I referred in my July 17th post.  Finally, it is obvious that, having presented me as a representative of that target group, they wanted the public to believe that, if such a representative says his group is being pandered to, his group is indeed being pandered to.

What is most interesting, however, is that, despite the fact that I wrote that I agree with the Conservatives’ decision to make the long form census voluntary, not one of the Conservative MPs on the SCIST panel asked me any questions.  None of them took the opportunity to bolster the Conservative claim to acting on “principle”, by asking me a question to which I could respond that making the census voluntary is quite a principled thing to do.  None of them took the opportunity to appear friendly to a freedom advocate well known among Objectivists, libertarians and other individualists in Canada; none risked the appearance of being allied with, or of being of similar mind to, a reasonably well-known opponent of government coercion.  All of the Conservative MPs on the SCIST panel avoided that opportunity like the plague.  The message to all lovers of liberty: ‘we want your support, but we do not actually share your commitment to individual freedom, and we certainly wouldn’t want to be seen allying with you in public’.  So, ask yourself: if Conservatives do not want to appear to be supported by, allied with, or of similar mind to principled opponents of government coercion, how can their claim to holding a principled opposition to government coercion be anything but utter bullshit?

Bullshit Submission #2: Only 50 or so people have called the privacy commissioner to complain about the census, so the actual number of people who object to filling out the long form census is being immensely over-stated.

This line of argument was offered up primarily by Liberal MP Dan McTeague, during the SCIST Hearing. The argument is bullshit for numerous, somewhat obvious reasons.  Two biggies follow.

First, the violation of ones privacy is a concern for only a fraction of the estimated 19% of Canadians who would not fill out the long form census were it voluntary (note: the 19% figure is a result in a poll conducted by IPSOs pollster Darrell Bricker, who testified to the SCIST Hearing).  I, for example, do not regard it as a well kept secret that I am a middle aged Caucasian male: anyone with could easily find that out.  I do not regard it as a violation of my privacy for people to look at me, so I do not regard it as a violation of my privacy to write down, in a census form, that I am a middle aged Caucasian male.  And I have no fear that the census will tell the government something “private” about my money: it already gets that information from me yearly via my tax return.  Because I have no concern about such alleged “privacy”, I have absolutely no reason to call a Privacy Commissioner.

As any politician debating the voluntariness of the 2011 census should try to remember or to discover, in the lead up to the 1996 census, the public was outraged that it was to be denied the opportunity to identify their “Ethnic Origin” as “Canadian”.  Political pressure led to the inclusion of “Canadian” as a response.  They objected then – as objectors do now – to a government that doles out special barriers and disadvantages, and special privileges and advantages, to different Canadians based upon their “ethnic origin”.  A large – perhaps the largest – proportion of Canadians upset with the mandatory long form these days similarly are upset not because of privacy issues, but because they want a government that is blind to issues of race, sex, religion et cetera.  They have no reason to call a Privacy Commissioner when what is bothering them is collectivism.

Second, among those objectors whose concern is the violation of their privacy, we may rightly expect to find individuals who are distrustful of or who fear government.  Survivors of the Holocaust who were targeted because of their race, religion, profession, income, et cetera; those who – like former StatsCan head Ivan Fellegi – have left countries because of governmental tyranny; or – as the SCIST heard from a witness – Inuit living in the remote north: all have reasons for fearing that the government will use such information against them.  Mr. McTeague would have us believe that people so terrified of government would actually contact the government’s Privacy Commissioner to complain about the government’s census.  For people having such fear of government, that is like expecting them to stand outside of Parliament with a sign saying “Shoot me, loot me, I’m your enemy”.  A government body can say all it wants about how it will maintain the anonymity of complainants, but can anyone permanently terrorized by the abuse of governmental power and information rationally be expected to trust that a complaint to the Privacy Commissioner will not put them in the government’s cross-hairs?

The bottom line: the argument – that the number of complaints made to the Privacy Commissioner demonstrates few people care about census penalties – is bullshit.

Bullshit Submission #3: Nobody has ever gone to jail for refusing to complete the census.  That people go to jail is an “urban myth”.  Therefore, the government’s decision to eliminate penalties for non-completion of the long form census is a response to a crisis manufactured by government.

Bullshit arguments of this sort have been made most prominently by NDP MP Charlie Angus, and by Liberal MP Marc Garneau.

The essence of this bullshit argument is that that, because the imprisonment penalty is never actually imposed, nobody is harmed by it, so there is no reason to repeal the penalty.  This line of thought has at least two possible interpretations.

One interpretation is that the penalties have no effect on anyone.  If that is the case, there is no rational reason for opposing their repeal, so the argument is bullshit.

The other interpretation is that the effect of the penalties is nothing more than to create sufficient fear of imprisonment that non-consenting Canadians will be coerced into completing the long form census.  If that is the case, then it is false that Canadians are not being harmed by the imprisonment penalty: fear and coercion are harm.  It is because of that harm – because of that violation of ones liberty – that, if a stranger were to appear at your door and say, in a threatening manner, “Tell me your name, or I’ll forcibly take all of the money from your wallet”, he could be charged with a criminal offence.  As with the first interpretation, the implication that the law harms nobody is bullshit, so the conclusion drawn from that bullshit – that the penalty should not be repealed – is also bullshit.

Bullshit Submission #4: What we advocate is a mandatory long form census, not penalties.

Arguments to that effect have been made most prominently by Statistical Society of Canada President Don McLeish, and by former Toronto Dominion Bank Chief Economist Don Drummond (now Chair of an Advisory Panel on Labour Market Information), both of whom were witnesses at the SCIST Hearing.  See also a (typically) bizarre media release by the Green Party of Canada.

Sexual contexts aside, one cannot suck and blow at the same time.  In law – and I say this as a lawyer – “mandatory” means: if you do not comply, your liberty or property will be taken away to one extent or another.   There is no other meaning for “mandatory”, if we are speaking about a law.  The argument is bullshit because – if pressed to take a stand on whether or not all penalties for non-completion of the long form census should be repealed – those making this bullshit argument ultimately state that at least some form of penalty (i.e., fine or imprisonment) must remain.  In other words, the people spouting this bullshit argument want their audience either to remain ignorant of the existence of a penalty, or to hold a false belief that things mandated by law do not necessarily involve penalties or coercion of any sort.

Thanks to the cross-examination done by Conservative MP Mike Lake (who should have been a litigator, and probably deserves a promotion…perhaps to Tony Clement’s position), the argument was exposed to be bullshit both when made by SCIST Hearing witness Don McLeish and when made by SCIST Hearing witness Don Drummond.  Their testimonies – and their faces – must really be watched to get the full feeling of their discomfort with giving an honest answer to Lake’s questions, but here are the exchanges in question (without changing the meanings of the questions or answers, I edit out parts of the questions and answer that are not directly on-point).  First, the cross-examination of Don McLeish:

Lake: “Should your daughter…be threatened with jail time or a fine for not wanting to answer the question ‘How much house work did you do last week?’ ”

McLeish: “…My Society has not taken a position on what the penalties associated with non-compliance with the Statistics Act should be, because that’s not really our expertise.  That’s a government decision.”

Lake: “Your association does advocate for penalties though.” (Note: McLeish was testifying as a witness opposed to the Conservative government’s decision to repeal penalties associated with non-completion of the long-form census).

McLeish: “No.  My association advocates that the voluntary long form of the census be mandatory as it has in the past….In my personal view, they should not be threatened with jail time, in part because it’s never happened and it’s a red herring in this debate; in part because [the magnitude of the penalty is] all out of proportion [to the nature of the offence]…The word ‘mandatory’ is important.  I submit that the level of fine associated with it, which is under government jurisdiction, is much, much less important”.

Next, Lake’s cross-examination of Drummond, who was also testifying in opposition to the Conservatives’ decision to make the long form census voluntary.  Lake gives Drummond essentially the same question he gave McLeish, namely: should a person threatened with jail time or a fine for not wanting to answer the question ‘How much house work did you do last week?

Drummond: “If the problem is the threat of jail time, remove it, you don’t need it.  It’s not used.”

Drummond having dodged the issue of fines with his answer, Lake moves in for the kill, asking Drummond whether a fine should be imposed were a person not to answer a long form question about the amount he has spent upon water.

Drummond: “The fine itself is not the issue.  There’s a notion in Canada that filling out the census is mandatory.  I don’t think people look at the fine.  The fines are not invoked very often.  I don’t think that’s the notion.  The right notion, which people have understood in Canada, is: it’s mandatory.  And the vast majority of Canadians do it.  And I don’t think they do it because of the threat of a fine…”

Lake: “So, you’re saying we could go without fines then?”

Drummond: “The fines probably have to be there on paper, but I think they’re not really the central issue.  If people understand that this is a benefit and it’s part of being a Canadian citizen, then they would fill it out whether there’s a fine or not.  They won’t pay attention to the existence of the fines.”

Lake: “Isn’t that a voluntary system, then?”

Drummond: “The fines are there, on paper, so it’s not a [does not complete his sentence, for obvious reasons.  He instead switches to] It’s more of an attitude, and it’s a promotion of [public duty, personal benefit].”

Lake: “Okay, so that’s basically the approach that the government has put forward, and that sounds like the same approach you are talking about”.

Drummond: “No…I think that you need some measure of – on paper, at least – hopefully not used very much, but certainly not jail.”

When subsequently questioned by NDP MP Claude Gravelle, Drummond states: “I think the most important thing is the question: ‘Is there a sentiment that it’s part of your civic duty to fill it out or not?’.  I think the fines and the penalty are irrelevant, relative to that.”

Again: one cannot suck and blow.  When McLeish and Drummond say they want completion of the long form census to be “mandatory”, even they are unwilling to deny that “mandatory” requires the continued existence of a penalty.  Had they been so willing, they would actually be witnesses supporting the Conservatives’ decision.  In short: the above argument – an argument made by numerous opponents of the Conservatives’ decision – is bullshit.

Bullshit Submission #5: “I would fill out the long form census if it were voluntary”.

IPSOs pollster Darrell Bricker testified to the SCIST that 19% of people he polled would not voluntarily fill out the long form census, and that 80% would do so.  A good proportion of those saying they would fill out the long-form census in a voluntary system are clearly bullshitting.   These poll respondents expect us to believe that although they are barely more than 50% likely to find it worth their while to take 10 minutes to walk a block and place a single check mark, to answer a single question (i.e., the ballot) once every few years, they are somehow 80% likely to answer 50 or 60 questions comprising a 40 page long-form questionnaire asking them about their religion, their “race”, and – for all intents and purposes – whether they are regularly having sex in their home with someone who is not their spouse.  They are the same people who promise themselves they will start dieting and working out tomorrow, and who buy year-long gym memberships to work off the Christmas goose, only to quit by the end of January.  We all like to believe that we will take the time to do things like vote, and take voluntary government polls. And, when asked, few of us want to admit – to ourselves, and much less to others – that we just do not think voting, or census-completing, or gym membership buying will ultimately end up giving us anything of value.  In the immediate term – when we really do not care whether or not our answer will turn out to be true – a significant percentage of us will answer to a pollster that, yes, we would answer a voluntary long-form census.  We will take a “tomorrow’s another day”, wait-and-see attitude with respect to the issue of whether or not we are bullshitting ourselves and others (knowing full well that we will, by that time, have forgotten that we were polled).   The claim by a good proportion of the 80% – that they would answer a voluntary long-form census – is bullshit.

Bullshit Submission #6: If we were to get rid of the jail term, and leave the fine in place, that would be a good compromise.

Noteworthy sources of this bullshit proposal are numerous, but clearly include Don Drummond, as indicated by his testimony, above. [UPDATE: on the afternoon of July 29th, NDP leader Jack Layton made this very same bullshit proposal to the Prime Minister as a “compromise”].

This argument is the perhaps the oldest bullshit in the history of tyranny.  That it is bullshit is probably best demonstrated with an example.  In 1986, it was illegal for most retail stores in Ontario to open on Sundays.  To challenge the constitutionality of the ban in court, then London bookstore owner Marc Emery opened his bookstore contrary to the ban.  At trial, he was fined $500.  He refused to pay the fine.  The government’s response: imprisonment.  He remained in jail for four days, until the general public contributed the money to pay the fine.  The lesson: there is no such thing as a fine that does not necessarily imply the availability of imprisonment as a penalty.  In other words: the notion of a penalty that excludes the implication of imprisonment is bullshit.

Bullshit Submission #7: “What Canadians are witnessing in the census saga is the temporary triumph of ideology over reason…The Statistics Canada fight is not the usual clash of competing political visions, of left against right, of Conservatives against progressives. Rather, this is a fight about rational decision-making that requires the best fact-based evidence available against a reliance on ideological nostrums that scorn facts and reason when they stand in the way of those nostrums.” – Direct quotation from Jeffrey Simpson’s July 23, 2010 column in the Globe and Mail.

Noteworthy sources of this bullshit argument include not only Jeffrey Simpson, but also NDP MP Charlie Angus, and Bloc Quebecois MP Richard Nadeau (who, in the SCIST Hearing, kept insisting that the central issue is one of science and of the validity of census data, rather than one of whether or not it is morally right to penalize a person for refusing to complete and remit the long-form census). UPDATE: Josee Legault used Bullshit Submission #7 in her July 30th, 2010 column in the Montreal Gazette.

This argument is not only bullshit, but hypocritical bullshit.  The fact that evidence exists, and that it is accurate, does not mean that the evidence is relevant.  A person’s belief that one ought not to eat an apple each day does not necessarily imply the existence of an ideology that makes one wilfully blind to the fact that apples are red.   An alternative implication is that the colour of an apple has no bearing on whether or not one ought to eat an apple every day.  Similarly, the (pretty much undeniable) fact that making the census voluntary will introduce sampling bias that will narrow the usefulness of the census does not necessarily imply that it is wrong to make the census voluntary.  The effect of voluntariness upon the usefulness of the census is a matter of metaphysics and epistemology; a matter of what IS.  Given what IS, the question of what the government OUGHT therefore to do is a question of ethics and politics, not of metaphysics and epistemology.

“Ideology” is a matter of ethics and politics, not a matter of metaphysics and epistemology; it is a matter of what OUGHT to be, not of what IS.  Even if both sides of the debate were to agree that making the long-form census voluntary will cause sampling bias that will narrow the usefulness of the long form census, it is no more and no less “ideological” to argue that the government therefore OUGHT NOT to make the census voluntary, then to argue that the government therefore OUGHT to make the census voluntary.  In other words, everyone who has an opinion about whether the government OUGHT to make the census voluntary and of narrowed use has an “ideology”.  It is utter bullshit to say that “ideology” has trumped “reason” if one believes the government OUGHT to make a decision that narrows the usefulness of the census, but that “ideology” has nothing to do with it if one believes that the government OUGHT NOT to make a decision that narrows the usefulness of the census.

In short: no matter which side of the debate argues that their opponent’s stance is an example of ideology triumphing over reason, the argument is utter bullshit.


Lying beneath all of these bullshit arguments is a rather simple debate that nobody wants to have in public: Should the government distribute wealth and political influence to individuals in accordance with each individual’s race, sex, religion, nationality, mother tongue, income, wealth et cetera, or should the government be blind to such individual differences and stick to the business of defending the lives, liberty, and property of all individuals, irrespective of their race, sex, religion, nationality, mother tongue, income, wealth et cetera?  In other words, those complaining about being forced, under penalty of fine or imprisonment, to pigeon-hole themselves into man-made collectives see the issue as a matter of individualism versus collectivism; as a matter of government as keeper of peace, order and good government among adult Canadians, versus government as daddy of a Canadian family that shares wealth equally, regardless of which individuals earn it.

Those collectivists opposing the lifting of penalties for non-completion of the long form census also see the issue as a matter of individualism versus collectivism.  However, they do not want anyone to know that that is the issue in question.   They are happier obfuscating the ethical-political issue with yammerings-on about the metaphysical and epistemological issue of the effect of voluntariness upon the validity of census data (which is, in reality, a non-issue, because it is simply true that making the census voluntary will introduce sampling bias, thereby making the census a picture of the nature of people who choose to fill out the census, rather than a picture of the nature of the entire Canadian population).

This debate is not happening for one reason: the majority of both Liberals and Conservatives want to be treated as children of a collectivist daddy government.  They are, in other words, on the same side of the real issue involved (i.e., individualism versus collectivism).  However, there is nonetheless inter-party disagreement about making the long form census voluntary because, unlike the Liberals, the Conservatives want to have their cake and eat it too.  To individualists – many of who, for years, have misguidedly treated the Conservatives as allies in a war for individual freedom – the Conservatives want to be seen as defenders of rugged individualism.  The Conservatives want individualists to believe that, if the Conservatives only had a majority, there would be a big anti-collectivism, pro-individualism revolution.   However, to the majority of Conservatives – who are not pro-individualist but who are pro-theocracy types; ‘cops can do no wrong’ types; ‘bring back the good ole’ days’ types; ‘gimme the common sense, dumbed-down Homer Simpson version’ types; and so on – the Conservatives want to appear as the defender of the status quo; the “natural governing party”; a party that twiddles with the fine tuning knobs of government, but that never touches the big dial.  Thus the bullshit Conservative use of the words “principle” and “principled” in the context of a decision so utterly unprincipled (e.g., long form census voluntary, short form census mandatory) that even Conservatives can hardly keep a straight face when they use such words.

So here is what is going to happen.  If the Conservatives fold on this issue, it will prove a lose-lose for them electorally: they will have lost this tussle over the census, and will be seen by the pro-individualists, to whom they implicitly are pandering, as cowardly turn-coats; as lacking the desire, will or courage to stand up for individual freedom; and as having lacked any viable plan for proposing and delivering their long form census decision to the public.  The mooching egalitarians will continue to point to income disparities between those who produce more and those who produce less, blaming such disparities on racism, sexism, and any other collectivist ism they find to meet with general public’s disgust.  The mooching researchers and central planners will continue to stick the taxpayer with a good part of the cost of their research, most of which will be research devised to support claims that there is a problem that government ought to fix, at taxpayer expense.  Producers will see less and less wisdom in assuming the risk and burden of producing and, in increasing numbers, they will jump on the moocher-looter bandwagon instead of continuing to pull it.

If, instead, the Conservatives dig in their heels, the public will simply grow bored of reading about the issue, and lefty writers who continue to carp on about it will have their readership rolling their eyes (to the general public, this whole issue is totally fringe, so dwelling on it makes any writer look out of touch).   When the voluntary 2011 census rolls out next year, the left will again start writing columns about the voluntary nature of the census: some will write that the Harper government has made it worthless; others will implicitly campaign that it is in every moocher’s and looter’s interest to fill out the census, and that it is every Canadian’s “civic duty” to fill it out.  Response rates will be much lower than 80%.  The general public will get its first true datum – response rate – concerning how many Canadians think the census is something they should be paying for and spending their time filling out.   As a result of a low rate of public interest in filling out the long form, the public will be much more willing to agree that it’s time to get rid of the long form census altogether.   An actual, non-bullshitty debate about individualism versus the collectivist purposes of the long form census might actually be held and debated on its merits.  And, if opponents of a mandatory long form census (Conservative or other) remain in power until 2016, there might no longer be a long form census as soon as 2016.  As I wrote a few days ago, the long form census – a weapon used by racist egalitarians and other collectivists to make the government take more money from those who earn it, and give it to those who do not – will be destroyed.  It will be somewhat harder for the collectivists to blame differences in wealth and income upon false claims of racism, sexism and the like.  The collectivists will have to fall back on being more truthful; on saying that they simply want what others have earned, and are willing to beg, steal, and vote to get it.  The mooching researchers, academics, businesses who use data of the kind collected in the long form census will start paying for the data they get, like everyone else does.  And those of us who want our freedom – who honestly believe that they are members of only one race: the human race – will have won a significant battle against collectivism, though certainly not the war.


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