Readers may recall my view of government statistics. I’m against them. Not against bookkeeping, but against trying to measure society (including “the economy”) in statistical terms.
Formerly I believed that such statistics were “dual use”; that like the technology behind bioterrorism, statistical findings could be put to good uses, or bad. But the more I’ve thought this through, the better I’ve understood that there are no good uses.
Statistics, by their nature, reduce people to things, to be manipulated by something called “public policy”—itself a term for what we have when politics have been degraded to the conditions that pertain in a nanny state. (I wish I didn’t believe that. It excludes me from some nice soft jobs in policy think-tanks.)
Moreover, I am convinced that the very act of gathering, assembling, checking, publishing and analysing statistics is dehumanizing; it is a perversion of the arithmetical impulse. (I’ve seen what it’s done to some of my friends.)
Granted, this view is radical.
Most people chill out as they age. I seem to become ever more sharply aware of goods and evils, and ever more willing to contemplate the spiritual equivalent of surgery. A fortnight ago, in this space, I noticed myself calling for a “humanist revolution”—but defining such a thing as nearly the opposite of what most people would understand by those words. So, let me assure the concerned reader that I am nowhere near the levers of power—only a pundit, and in that capacity I was curious to read a statistical report on the cost to the nanny state, and through that to the taxpayer, of family breakdowns.
The study, titled Private Choices, Public Costs, was done by Rebecca Walberg and Andrea Mrozek for the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada.
It could perhaps be justified on the same ground as nuclear weapons. That is to say, if the enemy has nuclear weapons, we are going to need them, too.
If the enemy is flaunting statistics, we, alas, need bigger and better statistics to hurl back.
Let me say straight out that this study is far too conservative. By “conservative,” I mean that it arrives at a raw estimate—a $7-billion current annual cost to Canadian taxpayers for “poverty alleviation” programs alone, directly caused by the separation of parents with small children, that excludes costs incurred through the vast family-law bureaucracies, the associated court system, special education, criminal justice and many other costs that might easily have been used to pump the number higher.
It overlooks, of course, the actual cumulative costs, with compound interest, when a substantial part of government spending is borrowed.
On the over-reasonable assumption that half of the beneficiaries of means-tested housing, child-care and welfare spending would still be collecting, even if the families had held together, it estimates less than
$2 billion in annual savings if half of family breakdowns could be prevented.
Alas, this last amount is cookie-jar money for a modern politician; especially after it has been distributed in numerous departmental budgets through the usual fiscal shell games.
The message to the political class is likely to be: “Thank gawd that’s all it is, we can move on to the next crisis.” When, in fact, as Walberg and Mrozek are well aware and do explain, the real costs are much higher—in money, and in currencies much nastier than money.
Unfortunately, the statistics—any statistics at all—turn a debate about social realities into a debate about numbers. It becomes what appears a titanic struggle between opposing calculating machines, employed respectively by the “culture of life” and the “culture of death.” But—I insist, radically—statistics are themselves the natural machinery of the “culture of death,” and at the service of the Wizard of Oz who shamelessly invents the most sensational numbers. The honest statistician is no match for such a manipulator (unless, say, fearless journalists are eager to rip away the curtain that conceals him, instead of lazily using his numbers for a headline).
But—I continue to insist—even if we could obtain the right and final numbers, they would not tell us much. The fallout in wrecked lives is incalculable.
It is incalculable because we cannot trace, by statistical or any other means, all the consequences of any human act. As humans ourselves, we can only catch the gist; and then, only when we care to look at what is before our eyes.
As Walberg and Mrozek and so many other patient and reasonable studies have confirmed, the child who emerges from a broken home is far more susceptible to the range of social ills—from grim silent poverty to psychological distress to blatant criminal behaviour—than the child who emerges from a stable home with a God-fearing mommy and daddy.
And for that very reason, the state that pretends to care about the fate of its citizens will do everything in its power to normalize and reinforce the traditional two-parent arrangement for raising kids.