The Sum of the People: How the Census Has Shaped Nations, From the Ancient World to the Modern Age, by Andrew Whitby, Basic Books, 368 pages, $30
THE CENSUS IS almost as old as the state itself: Leaders have long wanted to know how many people they can tax and how many men they can call up for military service. But as the economist Andrew Whitby details in The Sum of the People, attitudes toward such head counts vary widely from one culture to another. There is an Old Testament prohibition against counting the people, a restriction that lingered in Judeo-Christian cultures for centuries. The first modern census, Whitby argues, was an effort in 1703 to count the residents of Iceland (then a Danish colony with a small and starving population).
Censuses can also have benign, practical purposes, unrelated to taxes or conscription. They can be used to determine political representation, as is the case in the United States. Disaster preparedness is easier if you know how many people are likely to be hit by a bomb or a flood. Infrastructure planners want to gauge how many people will need to use a road or a transit system. There have even been times when a census has been a defense against state overreach. People can use them to prove property rights--for instance, as evidence of time in residence when making a claim for adverse possession. In the case of tribal rolls (another kind of census), people can use them to prove their membership in a particular group.
But over the ages, people have had good reasons to worry about the government knowing too much about them. Censuses are useful for the panopticonic state. For the individual, they're an odder proposition.
SOME OF WHITBY'S work focuses on the ongoing issue of precisely what questions a census should ask and how the tally should be tabulated. As a data scientist, he is attracted to the history of the apparatus of census collecting. Indexing census data helped bring about the development of early computer systems.
In the West, of course, the census is just one of a range of many forms of state surveillance. Other data, such as birth, death, and immigration records, have all been formalized and centralized, like a pincer movement to trap citizens on the page in perpetuity. Indeed, most developed nations could probably skip a formal census process if they had to. Between birth records, school enrollments, immigration files, and tax returns, the government arguably has enough information to...