We didn't elect the government to be our conscience

In case you were busy this week counting your wives or playing "Where's Adrienne" (hint: don't look in Alberta), I'd like to draw your attention to a story in last Sunday's Citizen saying the federal government spent a cool $25.4 million on opinion polls last year. I think they're up to something. Cynics may respond, "Of course they are. They're up to preparing for an election." I wouldn't put it past this (or any) incumbent government to spend public money polishing its own political fortunes. But I fear the cynics are taking, as so often, far too optimistic a view. I think misguided idealism is on the rampage again.

Please note first that last year's spending, the second-highest ever after 2001's $26.2 million, is no blip: It's the fifth straight year the federal opinion-research tab has exceeded $20 million. And while government can blow hundreds of millions of dollars without breaking a sweat, it's still a lot of polling (593 polls in the past fiscal year alone, or more than two every working day, although to be fair, like other members of the 1-800 crowd, they sometimes call on weekends, too). It's far more, on far more issues, than can be explained by the seediest of electoral concerns. And besides, this may be a pre-election year, but 2001 wasn't. Why on earth is the government gauging our moods so obsessively?

According to Jeffrey Simpson in last week's Globe and Mail, one thing that fascinates the government is testing the effectiveness of its own advertising, which he says accounts for over a quarter (28 per cent) of all government research spending. Granted, if you're selling a product, you want to know if your ads worked. And if you're the government, your budget for polling, advertising and anything else you feel like is not subject to the same constraints as in the private sector. Still, it seems like a lot, given that, like everyone else, you have only 24 hours in a day.

So what is it that people in government think they're doing that requires them to measure our moods relentlessly twice a day and, especially, to see how successfully they're altering those moods? What, in fact, is their product? At the risk of seeming simple-minded, it sounds to me as though the government is not merely engaging in propaganda, partisan or otherwise. I think it has donned a white coat and horn-rimmed glasses and is subjecting us to relentless conditioning, including, as any good social scientist would, systematic checks on how well it's working.

I don't want 62 per cent of readers to think I'm paranoid, plus or minus 3 per cent 19 times out of 20 unless it snows on a Tuesday. I don't believe there is the slightest danger of governments' taking possession of our minds. These are the people who brought us the gun registry, and apparently spent $17 million in 2003 promoting something called the "one-tonne challenge" that, their own polling says, didn't have an ounce (sorry, a gram) of impact. To say government overestimates its capacity to effect positive social change is like saying the Atlantic is a bit damp or Jean Chr├ętien can be annoying.

I do not fear some invasion of the bureaucratic body snatchers here. But I am a firm believer in Somary's Law that the more governments do things they should not do, the less they do things they should. Ours certainly seem to be falling down badly on defending the realm, enforcing clear, comprehensible laws impartially, cutting the grass on the medians and, if time permits, maintaining a decent standard of honesty in the conduct of public business. And I worry that it's partly because their limited powers of concentration are overtaxed almost as badly as their citizens.

Once upon a time, government's task was to defend the Queen's peace and combat fraud. Later, it got into managing the economy through deficit spending where, you may have noticed, it manifested its usual reverse-Midas touch. But far from learning humility, when it got bored with mere prosperity it found a new and even more fascinating hobby.

Our political class now considers itself the conscience and brain of society, which it views as an amorphous and sluggish but not totally unpromising entity it must lead and shape through anti-tobacco strategies and fitness campaigns and polls on our attitudes toward marijuana and weather forecasting and an on-line atlas.

We are in the grip of social science and must be poked, prodded and scientifically measured until we get the right cheese at the right time in the right way. And if we don't like their cheese, well, they're working on it.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson