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The census and government collation of national statistics only serve to perpetuate the illusion that central planning is possible

Picture 10 Professor Philip Booth is Editorial and Programme Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

It is very welcome news that the government is planning to scrap the census from 2021 (reported in the Daily Telegraph last week). Indeed, you might have first seen this suggestion on the IEA blog last February.

It has been suggested that the census will be replaced by the use of other data, survey evidence and so on. If we must collect data about the population as a whole, our sexual habits, the number of rooms in our houses and so on, then this is certainly a better way to collect it than a nationwide census. The last census seemed to be a complete shambles with incomplete data, a high level of non-returns, and so on, on a huge scale. At £0.5 billion, this shambles does not come cheaply.

So, given that abolishing the census will save a huge sum of money, the government should reconsider whether it can still call a halt to the 2011 census which it is still planning to undertake. However, more important than all this is that the central planning mentality that lies behind the census - and the collection of other official statistics - goes too. Perhaps a huge axe should be taken to the collection of government statistics more generally. Perhaps the government should not be collecting the survey data that will replace the census.

The ridiculous nature of the central planning process using official statistics was revealed in an Office for National Statistics news release earlier this year. It declared that the census provides key data so that, for example, the mobile phone industry can see whether there is an ageing population and adapt the functionality of their phones appropriately. Also, it was declared, the census underpinned the planning of billions of pounds of government spending in areas such as education, healthcare, and so on.

At the time of the news release it would have been planned that the 2011 census would have be used for these purposes until 2023 (when the data from the 2021 census would have been fully collated). It is difficult to believe that Vodafone will be determining the functionality of their mobile phones in 2022 by looking at census data from 2011. Indeed, such are the wonders of the market process, it is impossible to be certain that mobile phones will still be in use in 2022. Technological developments, relative prices of different technologies and the infinite variety of demand signals communicated through the market will determine how Vodafone develop their phones - certainly not the 2011 census.

And the government should not use census data for central planning either. Markets involve millions of people taking daily economic planning decisions in response to widely dispersed price signals. It is no wonder that government service provision is so inefficient if it relies on a poorly administered survey of the population undertaken up to thirteen years previously.

There is much to be concerned about in the coalition’s plans for health reform. However, perhaps one beneficial side effect is that the GPs who will be commissioning care will respond to the bottom up signals provided by individual people turning up at practices with their health problems and not by central planners in Whitehall trying to make head or tail of the discredited 2001 census.
The census has deeper roots but the vast majority of official statistics arise from a time when the government thought that it should centrally plan and direct the economy. They are not necessary. Indeed, they cause harm by continuing the illusion that central planning is possible. The government is right to scrap the census; it should take an axe to other Official statistics too – perhaps even national income figures should go.


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