Stats and the State


The State and statistics go hand in hand.1 They are utilized by the State as a justification for its necessity; they can be compelling and sometimes intimidating – and the general public rarely questions them. Most people don't understand how to make sense of the many numbers, ratios, and percentages spewed at them by State Bureaucrats. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that the State employs so many resources in gathering data. As Murray Rothbard said, "Statistics are the eyes and ears of the bureaucrat, the politician, the socialistic reformer."

The etymology of the word "statistics" is revealing:

  • German, Statistik: political science or science of state.
  • New Latin, statisticus, statisticum collegium: council of state or state of affairs.
  • Italian, statista: person skilled in statecraft, statesman or politician.
  • Old Italian, Latin, status: position, form of government.

Statistics were first used by the State to measure, for example, the number of taxable subjects in its territory. They were also employed to determine how many of its inhabitants could be sent off to invade and conquer its neighbors. Today the trickery continues on a much larger scale.

In 2009, the US Government will employ over 150,000 full-time workers (higher than normal due to its "decennial census staffing"; and yes, governments usually keep statistics on their statistical shenanigans) to carry out its statistical programs, all at the taxpayers' expense. It will spend almost $8 billion to gather and analyze data, a 117% increase from 10 years before. As a reference, when Murray Rothbard wrote "Statistics: Achilles' Heel of Government" in 1961, the US Government spent (a mere!) $43 million with 10,000 full-time employees.

All of this data is taken from over 90 agencies that spend over $500,000 in gathering data, which means the true amount spent and the number of employees actually involved in this process is much higher; it also does not include part-time and contract workers. The (accounting) cost of this is also much greater when we think about the number of private companies that are required to keep statistics to hand over to Government Bureaucrats. Private resources are being diverted to create public waste.

But the cost to liberty is even greater. A government without statistics would make it almost impossible to rationally justify its myriad interventions. The State is a respecter of persons; it employs fallacies of collectivism and talks in aggregates, not individuals, to present its data. It divides and segregates a population and uses terms such as groups, classes, races, and ranks. We hear of Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, wealthy, middle-class, poor, insured, uninsured, homeowner, homeless, old, young, immigrant, illegal immigrant, citizen, foreigner, married, divorced, widowed, male, female, employed, unemployed, etc. For example, phrases such as "the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer" can only be understood when aggregates are used, which are then used as an attempt to justify, for example, government welfare programs. Stereotypes are then linked to certain groups and many people begin to think in terms of classes of people.

The State that uses statistics finds it much easier to manipulate numbers and formulas rather than the more conspicuous task of altering definitions. For example, it becomes no longer necessary to redefine what inflation means to achieve the desired figure; now all that needs be done is change what is included in the formula before calculations are made. It doesn't take much work to then choose a desired outcome and "work backwards" to include the "right" data in the calculation. For example, in Australia and other countries, responding to pressure from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, "statistical gymnastics" were used to systematically manipulate the consumer price index, which has robbed pensioners and other social security recipients of billions of dollars.

It is also only because of statistics that the State can decide how to regulate its inhabitants. It attempts to plan and control the economy through this data. It can convince the public that it is necessary to take action, to "do something"; it tries to create something "seen" through a hodgepodge of numbers, and to disguise the unseen.

Nassim Taleb has been an outspoken critic of constructing uncertain models to make certain predictions. He says his "outrage is aimed at the scientist-charlatan putting society at risk using statistical methods. This is similar to iatrogenics, the study of the doctor putting the patient at risk.”

If we look back to 2006, Taleb wrote the following:

"The government-sponsored institution Fannie Mae, when I look at its risks, seems to be sitting on a barrel of dynamite, vulnerable to the slightest hiccup. But not to worry: their large staff of scientists deemed these events u2018unlikely.'"

Henry Paulson and other government bureaucrats seem to be intoxicating themselves with the same delusionary potion as Fannie Mae's mad scientists. They are like puerile children playing with a sophisticated and toxic chemistry set.

This was part of the reason Mises pointed out there is no such thing as statistical laws. There are, however, economic laws which the State cannot repeal, no matter its obstinacy. It is no wonder Murray Rothbard wrote about the State and its statistical ploys:

"Thus, in all the host of measures that have been proposed over the years to check and limit government or to repeal its interventions, the simple and unspectacular abolition of government statistics would probably be the most thorough and most effective. Statistics, so vital to statism, its namesake, is also the State’s Achilles’ heel."

This is why the State and statistics, which are both linked etymologically and historically, are also both united in the goal of destroying liberty – they are nearly one and the same. The answer is to topple either one, and enjoy the plunging of both.

  1. This article does not argue against the use of statistics per se (which the author believes are useful); it argues against the State's use of statistics.

November 29, 2008