Let’s just abolish the census

Tuesday night’s Census, after 5 years of planning and $470 million taxpayer dollars, was a catastrophe – the ABS has blamed a “denial of service attack”, a claim which lacks evidence and was preventable with proper planning.

There are also serious privacy problems – the ABS is keeping our names and addresses for four years, as the IPA’s Chris Berg explained back in May and the IPA’s Simon Breheny said on Sky News on Monday. Additionally the ABS is using a so-called “statistical linkage key” to track you, indefinitely – which is absurdly easy for other people to figure out, generate yours here.

After this abject disaster it time to ask – do we actually need a Census?


Murray Rothbard, perhaps the most influential 20th century libertarian economist, said “statistics, so vital to statism, its namesake, is also the state’s Achilles heel”:

Statistics are the eyes and ears of the bureaucrat, the politician, the socialistic reformer. Only by statistics can they know, or at least have any idea about, what is going on in the economy …

How could the government impose price controls if it didn’t even know what goods have been sold on the market, and what prices were prevailing? …

Cut off those eyes and ears, destroy those crucial guidelines to knowledge, and the whole threat of government intervention is almost completely eliminated …

It is difficult to see what, for example, the central planners at the Kremlin could do to plan the lives of Soviet citizens if the planners were deprived of all information, of all statistical data, about these citizens. The government would not even know to whom to give orders, much less how to plan an intricate economy.

The IPA’s John Roskam, writing in the Australian Financial Review today about the Census disaster, explains why it is perhaps time for the Census to go altogether:

Until now the failure of the census has been portrayed as a technology stuff-up. But it’s also a story of the unrestrained arrogance of government bureaucrats and the reluctance of ministers to challenge those bureaucrats.

It’s unacceptable for the Bureau of Statistics to want to hold in perpetuity the personal details of individuals as revealed in the census. Yet it appears no minister has thought to challenge the bureau’s demands. The supposed justification for the ABS keeping personal data is that it will provide for a “richer and dynamic statistical picture of Australia”. Again, until Nick Xenophon and the Greens started speaking out about the census, no one had bothered to ask the ABS what such gobbledygook means.

No one has asked questions even more basic – such as why the government should know what a person’s religion is. Sure, it’s interesting to know the percentage of the population practising Zoroastrianism, but just because something is interesting to social science researchers doesn’t mean citizens should be coerced into handing over such information to the government on pain of a fine for non-compliance.

If we are to have a census, it should be voluntary. (For that matter, voting should be voluntary too.)

Even better than making the census voluntary would be to abolish it all together. Which is what a number of other countries, including Britain, have done. In 2010 then Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, in an effort to strengthen people’s privacy, abolished his country’s compulsory census.

At least something good has come out of the census debacle. Australians now have a much better understanding of the limits of technology – and of the limits of government.

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