Sometimes a gaffe is more than a gaffe

POTTER: The comedy of Clement failing basic economics aside, it’s scary that he doesn’t understand his file

Blair Gable/Reuters

Since he became Prime Minister 4½ years ago, Stephen Harper has tormented the press gallery with an almost complete lockdown on government communications, with even cabinet ministers informed that the public is not entitled to their opinions. The assumption has always been that he is just a weapons-grade control freak, but a pair of recent exchanges suggest an alternative theory: that Harper knows something about the ideological leaning of his cabinet that he’d prefer to keep quiet.

Last week, Minister of Industry Tony Clement was given the task of defending the government’s decision to eliminate the mandatory long-form version of the census and move those questions to an optional survey. According to Clement, the long census—which asks questions about respondents’ ethnicity, education and income—is “heavy-handed” and intrusive. Clement mounted his libertarian high horse: “You try to limit the amount of state coercion that you have, you try to limit the intrusiveness of government activities, and that’s the balance that we’ve struck,” he said.

Imagine his surprise, then, to find that some of the people most upset by the decision were members of the business community and economists, all of whom stressed the importance of the census data to the crafting of public policy. Clement then took his case to the Twittersphere. In response to one follower who argued that making the long form of the census voluntary will skew the data by eliminating the statistical randomness of the survey, Clement answered, “Wrong. Statisticians can ensure validity w larger sample size.” This was promptly pounced on by Laval economist Stephen Gordon, who corrected the minister: “Wrong. Large samples can’t fix sample selection biases.”

Clement’s statistical illiteracy is so profound it gives one vertigo. The notion that simply making the sample bigger can’t fix a skewed sample is something undergraduates learn in first-year classes, yet is somehow beyond the mental grasp of a senior minister of a G8 country. And the comedic benefit of watching Clement fail first-year economics is undermined by the cold realization that he fundamentally does not understand the intellectual foundations of the files that he controls. When he is cornered by his intellectual betters, moreover, Clement’s instinct is to reach for the debating-hall comforts of cheap populism.

This exchange was really just the sequel to a previous joust from late June, when Heritage Minister James Moore gave a speech at a conference on copyright defending Bill C32, his copyright reform legislation. After his prepared remarks, he went on to warn against certain “radical extremists” who, he claimed, didn’t believe in copyright at all, and he vowed to confront these radicals in any forum.

Moore’s arguments were quickly challenged on Twitter, and—true to his promise—he found himself in a running (and very public) argument with Cory Doctorow, the Canadian cyberpunk writer and copyright activist. The main bone of contention was a provision in the bill that would give complete legal protection to “digital locks” that control the use, access and copying of works stored on your computer or device such as a Kindle or iPad. These effectively undermine the fair-use provisions in the existing copyright law, and both users and creators find them stifling.

As he lost point after point to Doctorow, Moore was reduced to uttering libertarian incantations. “Have some faith in market forces,” he wrote. “I trust the market.” “Don’t have so little faith in consumers.”

Except the entire point of copyright legislation is to limit the workings of the “free market.” Its function is to grant a state-backed monopoly over the copying of a work to the copyright holder. There are few provisions in the legal system more blatantly market-unfriendly than copyright, and it’s telling—and perhaps not entirely accidental—that a minister who doesn’t understand, or believe in, the most basic concept of copyright is in charge of it.

There are libertarians and there are libertarians. When it comes to Tony Clement and James Moore, theirs is not the principled and defensible small-government ideology of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. It’s more like the sweaty-palmed fanboy libertarianism forged by too many late nights in high school spent switching between the anti-feminist Nietszcheanism of Ayn Rand and the corporatist space fantasies of sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein.

And this bit of lame ideological freelancing by a couple of rogue (and Twitter-happy) ministers has disturbing resonances with a comment Harper himself made last year. When it comes down to it, he told the Globe and Mail, “I don’t believe any taxes are good taxes,” which is just a short way of saying he believes that literally everything the state does is bad.

Stephen Harper has spent a great deal of time fending off the accusation from the left that he harbours some hidden social-conservative agenda, whose diabolical contours will only be revealed once he achieves his much-feared majority.

But what we should really be concerned with is not that he wants to hand the controls of the ship of state over to a cabal of evangelical end-times wingnuts. Rather, the real worry is that when it comes down to it, he’d sooner see the whole thing scuttled.