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U.S. Census: Good, Bad or Indifferent?

March 9, 2010

Legibility & Social Control

Thanks for the warning, Bobby! I was concerned–freightened, in fact–that I might unexpectedly receive a Census form and not know what to do with it. If the idiocy of this mailer weren’t enough, then what irritates me further is its cordial invitation to plunder a “fair share.” In case the picture is too out of focus to read, I’ll type out my invitation from Robert M. Groves:

Results from the 2010 Census will be used to help each community get its fair share of government funds for highways, schools, health facilities, and many other programs you and your neighbors need. Without a complete, accurate census, your community may not receive its fair share.

Justice as fairness–how delightful! And how silly was I to think the U.S. budget was distributed, not according to fairness and the public good, but according to power and the influence of competing interests. Naive citizen! Let thyself be counted.

The Marquis de Vauban proposed a census to Louis XIV in 1686:

Would it not be a great satisfaction to the king to know at a designated moment every year the number of his subjects, in total and by region, with all the resources, wealth and poverty of each place…[Would it not be] a useful and necessary pleasure for him to be able, in his own office, to review in an hour’s time the present and past condition of a great realm of which he is the head, and be able himself to know with certitude in what consists his grandeur, his wealth, and his strengths?

I’m reminded of a symbolic anecdote John James Cowperthwaite would tell about governing Hong Kong. He said he refused to let the government keep any kind of economic statistics because he didn’t want any policy makers to have an excuse for intervening in the economy. Counting, tracking, numbering and measuring–all these attempts to make society more legible give policy makers the illusion of great control. And the temptation to indulge in that self-deception is all too great.

It’s a slippery slope. James Scott, in his book Seeing Like the State, provides a good model for this trend. Social legibility in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, many public goods depend on it, but it can become the policy-maker’s gateway drug to much worse.  When it’s combined with these two elements–an increasing faith in rational, technocratic control (the fatal conceit) and a willingness to use the full coercive apparatus of the state–the upshot is authoritarian tyranny. I highly recommend Scott’s book: he gives an insightful analysis of this global trend during the 20th century.

Of course, the U.S. government has not sunk so low. Authoritarian high-modernism is not its guiding ideology. But, pace Bobby Groves, I have no plans for answering his Census request. I live in California. My political beliefs are marginal. I will never receive what I believe is legitimate representation. The last thing I want to do is give Los Angeles or the state another representative or electoral college vote or whatever–it has way too much power as it is, I’m afraid. This is the best non-vote I could possibly cast. For this U.S. Census, I’m afraid you can count me out.

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4 Comments
  1. March 10, 2010 3:18 pm

    I’m reminded of a quote by Josiah Stamp:

    “the Government are very keen on amassing statistics. They collect them, add them, raise them to the nth power, take the cube root and prepare wonderful diagrams. But you must never forget that every one of these figures comes in the first instance from the village watchman, who just puts down what he damn well pleases.”

    Government power depends on the cooperation of the people.

  2. Alex N permalink
    March 28, 2010 7:07 pm

    Wouldn’t it be nice if private enterprise had access to these statistics? Hmm, wouldn’t it create a wealth of new businesses? But, no, there’s no google analytics equivalent for census data. The government gets access to all this and does what? Passes a healthcare bill? Common good and all that jazz.

    Count me out. I threw my census paperwork out the minute I received it.

  3. April 2, 2010 12:57 pm

    I think the us spends to much money on wars and foreign affairs. There should be more for the own country and its problems, for example the health care.

  4. Miguel Angel Tinoco Rodriguez permalink
    May 27, 2010 4:20 pm

    Census is like a death centence to a great many people. No trajedy ever took place without the numbering and tabulation of the people. This is no joke. When the germans conducted the 1939 Cenus, they sealed the fate of agreat many jews who a little later were easily identified and murdered and macerated by evil and conspiring men in a declining society.
    I made a general pass though history as far back as I can remember. When Moses was born, a census of all children under two years old was conducted and as a result only two of them may have survived. One being Moses and his brother Aaron. Of all the able men censed at the beginning of trhe exodus only two of that generation made it to the promised land and Moses and Aaron were not among them. When King david conducted an unauthorized census and forsake to request the due ransom amount 70,000 israelites died in one single day. had he not repented and acted promptly to comply with the decreed laws about 900,000 would have died of a desolating plague, war or famine. When the Messiah was about to be born a acenus was also conducted int he land of jerusalem and it ended in the masacre of the innocent. Only Jesus and John the Baptist made it alive of that generation. And if we can keep counting we will find out that we are not exempt from these man made or God sent perils. These things have taken place every generation ever since and people have taken but little notice.

    For instance in th US the first cesnus may have resulted in plagues of cholera and tiphus fevers and other likewise anomalies. Not long after the 1810 Us Census the 1812 war broke out in theis country. Perhaps more of these perils also took place in between this same century. When the 1910 Census was conducted, the first world war erupted and so forth until today these perils are increasing and compounding themselves in historical complexity. the 1990 and the 2000 cenus may have brought their own doom. Thus, sased on these and other statistics one can reasonabl predict that great perils awaits us all after thisn 2010 Census is conducted and 9 months from now those results are tabulated.

    Here is an interesting article that attest to these turbid facts.

    http://www.temple.edu/tempress/chapters_1400/1625_ch1.pdf

    Believe or not believe.

    The answer remains hidden in the winds.

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