Le Québécois Libre, August 15, 2010, No 280.
"I know some people think the appropriate way to deal with that is through prosecuting those individuals with fines and jail terms. This government will not do that. In this day and age, that is not the appropriate way to get the public's co-operation." —Stephen Harper
Unfortunately the Prime Minister was not talking about taxes when he made this excellent declaration. As anyone who has been following the news can guess, he was talking about the long-form census, completion of which his government has rightly decided to make voluntary. The Conservative leader made this appeal to what appears to be a perfectly general principle—that fines and jail terms are not the appropriate way to get the public's co-operation—in order to defend his government's position.
It's great to hear such a libertarian sentiment from the lips of the Prime Minister himself, and if I were feeling optimistic, I would say that it's a great thing even to hear such ideas discussed in public.
But I'm not optimistic, because the government seems to be losing this argument and inadvertently casting doubt on the general principle itself. The notion that the government ought to be less coercive has few if any defenders in the other major parties, so one would really like to see its Conservative champions do a better job.
They began to lose the argument pretty much as soon as the announcement was made. They did not opt to make the census completely voluntary as they should have if they were really trying to follow a general principle of non-coercion. The short form would still be mandatory. This raised the question: if it's okay to coerce people to respond to the short form, why is it not okay to coerce them to fill in the long form? Because the long form is much longer, they argued, and because it includes "invasive" questions. The government's big example of an invasive or inappropriate question that nobody should have to answer was this: how many bedrooms are there in your home?
It was disastrous for the government to allow the argument to shift to such a trite side-issue, but there it is. Rather than boldly asserting that the census should be voluntary and proceeding to make it voluntary, the government went only half of the way there and then seemed to base its case on a prudish and easily-ridiculed objection to a specific question.
Things went downhill from there, as a series of interested parties voiced objections to discarding the mandatory long-form, and the government offered weak resistance. The idea that coercion is bad has not occurred to the opposition parties, who frankly declare that maintaining the quality of census data is a sufficient reason to threaten people with jail, and anyway nobody has ever gone to jail for refusing to fill in the long form. One would think that a government armed with intelligible libertarian principles could respond to that kind of argument and make a winning appeal to the liberal instincts of the people, but apparently not.
Now the government has been browbeaten into expanding the still-mandatory short-form to include questions about language. They are in disordered retreat. If questions about language are to be mandatory why not questions about religion? Why not questions about how many bedrooms there are in your home? Of course the government does not have a good answer because they ceded the high ground at the outset. In spite of the noble pronouncements, we have been dithering about details all along, and even that has been a losing struggle. A "depressed senior Conservative" was quoted in the National Post as saying: "We do pick small hills to die on sometimes."
It might have been worth it to fight and lose such a silly-seeming battle if there really were some principle being defended, but that seems doubtful. The government has certainly not been more libertarian than it had to be. A week before the Prime Minister questioned the appropriateness of fines and jail terms for non-cooperative individuals, the government announced almost $10 billion in new spending to build more prisons. All in all its gestures in the direction of increased liberty (ditching the gun registry and the mandatory long-form census) have so far been feeble in comparison to its authoritarianism in other areas (the constant focus on crime and prisons, the monstrous mistreatment of Abousfian Abdelrazik, the complicity with the Toronto Police's disproportionate use of force at the G20 summit, and on and on). When Harper invokes libertarian principles he also invites these comparisons, and people begin to suspect hypocrisy and cynicism.
This is a pity because regardless of his reputation for being dictatorial with his own party, one suspects that Harper himself believes in liberty, perhaps more strongly than any Prime Minister in recent history. But of course his party is a coalition, one which apparently includes a number of people who need to be convinced that the principles of liberty should apply to gun owners and peaceful protesters, to honest people who might not want to answer a lot of census questions and to citizens suspected of having links to terrorists.
The freedom-loving faction within the Conservative Party can do a lot more to criticize the crime-and-prisons faction, more to increase liberty in this county, and more to encourage the Prime Minister to listen to his own better councils. To paraphrase the Marquis de Sade: Conservatives, another effort if you would be libertarians!
* Larry Deck is a librarian who lives in Montreal.