Once William of Normandy had completed his conquest of England, which he started in 1066, he decided he needed a complete inventory of who lived in his new kingdom, what they owned and therefore what could be collected in taxes – the famous “Domesday Book” was the result. A thousand years earlier the Roman Empire’s population census – again for taxation purposes – formed the backdrop to the Christian Nativity story. Governments have always been the generators of ‘bog data’.
The special status of government – especially in relation to taxation but also for many other reasons – puts them in a strong ‘nodal’ position for the collection and dissemination of knowledge about the societies they govern.
The very word “statistics” derives from a mid-18thC German word – statistic – which originally referred to the collection of all sorts of quantitative and qualitative data about the German micro-states. At the same time the English developed the term ‘political arithmetic’ for their more purely quantitative collection of data. Statistics became the idea – in national politics and government – of collecting quantitative information about populations, economic activity, and so on the 19thC.
We will examine the growth in ‘national statistics’ across the G7 from the formation of national statistical offices through to the vast array of economic and social stats now created or facilitated by governments and the opportunities (and problems) of comparing across countries [e.g. standardization of national accounts].
We will also look at how far governments often mislead themselves in thinking they more than they do about ‘their’ societies. In Scott’s famous “Seeing Like a State” one of the central features of the sorts of failures he examines are ones where government’s thought that they knew more than they did. This is exacerbated by the phenomenon known as the ‘shadow economy’ which actively hides large areas of human activity from governments. This is not just, as some assume, a ‘third world’ problem but is very much an issue in the G7 countries as well.
Governments don’t just generate and disseminate (or sometimes not) national ‘statistics’ however, they also do a lot more. They sponsor creation of new knowledge with projects that private enterprise and markets would be unlikely to finance. Often this so-called “basic” research leads to important applications with economic and social benefits [insert something from ‘Mazzucato’ stuff here].
Governments use information they create or facilitate in a wide variety of ways – primarily for making policy themselves. The manipulation of such information generation and dissemination can be an important policy-instrument in its own right. Finally, governments can use such information for persuasion purposes as part of policies – for example the health warning campaigns around smoking of wearing seat-belts in cars.