Swedish Statisticians at Work
Utopian statisticians regarded political arithmetic chiefly as a means of forecasting and calculating the prosperity they took for granted. Their method went back to Petty: a mixture of exact measures and approximations, the equation of human worth and capital value, and a willingness to mask imprecision with strings of decimal places.
The visionary statisticians put their program to work in quantitative parish surveys. Their Description of Lajhela Parish in Österbotten was explicitly intended as a model for similar surveys of all Sweden's parishes. The director of the Land Survey Board, E.O. Runeberg, drew up the plans and published the results in the Transactions of the Academy of Sciences for 1758–9. The report breaks down the area of the parish into exact figures for cultivated, cultivable, and uncultivable land; refines the analysis with a series of subdivisions; and specifies watercourses (numbers of lakes, rivers, streams, and springs) and roads (classed by degree of passability). It analyzes woodland ("450 trees on each tunnland [approximately 1.2 acres], yielding 36,733,120 trees in the parish") and animals ("there are 590 horses in the parish, 2,124 cows, 236 oxen, 944 young steers, 4,720 sheep, and 474 calves, [which] together total 9,086 head of livestock, fed over 7 months with 6,443 bales of hay at 7/10 bale a head").
The report includes details on the number of dwellings, barns, water mills, windmills, and so on, but excludes churches from the count as unproductive resources.
The descriptions had the higher purpose: making it possible to calculate the potential resources of the parish. Most striking in this regard was Runeberg's quantitative analysis of population. Averaging yielded a peculiar figure of 1,800 1/4 for the total population of the parish. Runeberg then analyzed the parish mortality and fertility rates. "In Lajhela 3.83 marriages, or for each marriage 3.83 years, are required to produce a child, but since the majority of children die, 9.15 marriages, or 9.15 years of each marriage, are required to increase the populace by one child." Runeberg found these figures all the more dispiriting when he computed from the parish's potential natural resources it could support 28,000 inhabitants.
Runeberg's most significant calculations addressed the parish's capacity for work. Like the political arithmeticians of the preceding century, Runeberg drew a clear distinction between a person and a worker . He set the highest value on a married workman (2,390.99 dalers), somewhat less on an unmarried workman, and even less on "a person in general," by which he meant an average value over the total population. A woman was assigned a capital value three-fourths that of a man. Then came children, divided by age group. Runeberg judged infants of negligible worth, since they required on average "one-fifth of a person in care and tending." They thus had to be reckoned as a debit equal to one-fifth of the full value of an adult. The reasoning went as follows: "If we assume that by the eighteenth year a youth is equivalent to a full adult workman, and that a child of common people does not begin to be of use until his ninth year, and that not until the eighteenth year has he atoned for all the inconvenience and damage he caused before his ninth year, then a youth can be seen as non-withdrawable capital, increased by the accrual of compound interest, which only begins to yield an annual return through simple interest after the eighteenth year. Thus if a youth is assigned a political value of 1,195 dalers at the eighteenth
year, he must be valued at 998.8 at the fifteenth, 746.3 at the tenth, 557.6 at the fifth, and 416.7 dalers in the cradle." On this basis, Runeberg reduced the value of the almost 2,000 inhabitants of the parish to that of 800 workers.
The report then presents the calculations in tabular form and compares actual and potential resources. Note the exactitude of the entries for what Runeberg called "political evaluation:"
Instead of gazing at distant vistas of great wealth, practical statisticians focused on the foreground of poverty and wretchedness, a country in crisis. To some observers the cause was obvious: serious imbalance between different sectors of the economy. The solution seemed equally clear: restore the balance, guided by measurement, counting, and calculation. Here quantification acquired an instrumental function. Quantitative data served as the foundation for functional social models, which could then be translated into immediate political action. Like utopian statistics, practical statistics aimed at improving society, not merely describing it.
The basis of practical statistics lay in the doctrine of proportions. As prescribed in the biblical text, all things are ordered by measure and number and weight. A social order called for well-defined harmony and balance among population, land, industry, and so on; and the definition of harmony rested on number. The task at hand was to measure social and economic components, compare them to the ideal, and shift and alter the components to achieve the desired harmony.
The leading advocate of practical statistics was Anders Berch, a professor of economics at Uppsala University. As a representative of the ruling party in the Riksdag (the party known as "the Hats"), Berch was strongly influenced by mercantilism. The title of his Politisk arithmetica (1746) shows where he stood. His ambition was to establish political arithmetic as a science; then and only then could a solid, exact economic policy be constructed. The transformation of social analysis into social strategy required four clearly defined stages.
The first stage was to uncover and understand the omniscient Creator's plan for a world in perfect balance. In the ideal state, everything would stand in harmonious proportion: population to area, economic activity to natural resources, production to consumption, men to women, and the duration of human life to "the supply of all human need." Next came measurement and collection of data—quantitative analysis of the present state of society. Anything and everything was to be measured: people, land, natural resources, productivity, efficiency, and consumption. A crucial factor was human productive capacity, which required careful assessment of the results of work in terms of time expended. A sufficiently broad base of calculations and data could overcome individual variations and yield an accurate value for the country's work force as a whole.
The data gathered would inevitably reveal imbalance in respect to the ideal proportions. The third stage was thus to calculate and balance every conceivable factor affecting the nation's capital strength against every other: people, agriculture, industry, and trade. The practical statistician used computations and estimates to settle on the suitable production of offspring or consumption of aquavit for a stated number of cities or of farmhands per farm. He also needed to
balance the costs of war against the value of war booty, and the expense of ambassadorial travel against diplomatic advantage.
In his insistence on the fourth and final stage of implementation, Berch showed his perception of the gulf between theory and practice, or calculation and political action. He criticized political arithmetic in England, which had been allowed to remain the preserve of scientific circles and never approached implementation. Graunt, Petty, and D'Avenant also came in for rebuke for their narrowness of vision; in their hands measurement broke down into fragments without consistency or system. The grandeur of the Swedish program lay in the intent to make of quantitative social analysis an instrument for regulating the whole economy.
Berch's dream of a fully planned economy was founded on a faith in the state and its officials and a presumption of the loyalty of individuals to a powerful state. Once the data were put in the hands of the authorities and the balances struck, laws and ordinances would oblige individuals to distribute themselves and their resources to conform with the proposed model for prosperity. Slowly but surely a new social edifice would emerge. But what if all attempts to force the data into tabular form failed? How then to derive mathematical formulas for prosperity? Realization of the difficulties inherent in practical statistics prompted some to retreat to a less ambitious enterprise. For them, "statistics" meant the art of compiling and processing numerical information, with no purpose beyond the figures themselves.
The leading representative of descriptive statistics was the astronomer Pehr Wilhelm Wargentin, long-time secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, who played an instrumental role in securing an institutional base for Swedish statistics. Descriptive statistics had as its objective to reveal, describe, and interpret data, but not to prescribe how the data might be used. In parallel with the limitation of its aims, descriptive statistics came to be confined to a subject where data might be gathered without insuperable difficulty—to population studies. Slowly, sound and methodologically conscious
population statistics began to squeeze out the extravagant attempts at precision and the lofty social aspirations of utopian and practical statistics. By the 1770s, population statistics would become the only type of statistical work undertaken in Sweden.
The general outlines of the growth of Swedish population statistics are well known. In 1749 influential Swedish mercantilists and the Academy of Sciences succeeded in their campaign to establish an Office of Tables (which would become the Central Bureau of Statistics in 1858). Parish priests were required annually to complete printed forms reporting the numbers of births (classed by sex), deaths (by sex, age, and cause), and marriages, as well as the total population (by age, sex, estate, and occupation) for the parish. The tables were forwarded through a series of governmental agencies to the Commission of Tables, whose task was to summarize the results and transmit them to the Riksdag and the king. The Office of Tables thereby compiled the first set of population statistics in the world based on regular counts of total population. An efficient parish registration system that did not miss a single soul, a permanent institutional base, and a population unusual for its ethnic and religious homogeneity, disciplined by an established church with ample opportunity to exercise formal and informal control, contributed to the success of the venture.
But the very success of the Office of Tables represented a retreat from larger ambitions. Its reason for existence derived from the central importance of population in the mercantilist program, but population studies alone were only part of the social analysis urged by the utopian and practical statisticians.
Initially, the staff of the Office of Tables shared the optimism of other statisticians. In particular, the Commission of Tables (dominated by statisticians and civil servants) dreamed of a gigantic survey of all components of the economy. Collated, combined, and
compared, the numbers and tables would constitute a map of Sweden's resources, strengths, and weaknesses, and provide the political authorities with an effective instrument for governing the country. This ambitious program is evident in the highly secret reports delivered by the Commission to the Riksdag and the king in 1755, 1761, and 1765. Mind-boggling arrays of figures classified Sweden's population under a total of sixty-one headings; virtually all individuals were linked to their work and capital-producing capacities.
In their aim, these reports appear to be a faithful application of political arithmetic. Individuals were assigned categories according to their economic and hence political value to the state. First came providers, then consumers, and finally a category of wholly "superfluous members" (notably tavern staff and servants) numbering 10,336. The figure for emigration—8,059 in 1761—is just as precise; when converted into value using the methods of utopian statistics, it represented an annual capital loss to Sweden of 9 1/2 million dalers. When the potential of the emigrants to produce offspring was figured in, the loss amounted to no less than 19 million dalers.
At first the Swedish parliament showed much interest in the data and their implications. It appointed commissions and ordered certain reforms, especially in the medical field. Soon, however, the initiatives were tabled or defeated. Decisions disappeared mysteriously en route to the king for implementation. The important table of estates and occupations was originally required annually. But already in the 1750s the requirement was changed to reporting once every three years; later this was reduced to once every five years. Quantitative analysis of natural data like births and deaths remained noncontroversial, but attempts to derive social diagnosis or prescribe social therapy from the figures excited objections. Political arithmetic fell out of favor as a political instrument. With the constitution of 1772, parliamentary reponsibility for the Office of Tables formally ceased.
As officials lost enthusiasm for statistics, so too did advocates of descriptive statistics rebel against the use of their subject as an
instrument of state power. For fifteen years, population information, broken down by estate, occupation, and age group, had been kept under wraps by the Office on Tables. During the early 1760s this suppression of population figures as a state secret occasioned heated debate. Only in 1764 was the official population of Sweden (2,383,113) first disclosed. Before long the detailed information underlying the estimate was available for study by anyone who wanted it. As the gap between statistics and state widened, statistics had the opportunity to develop independently of power interests or practical applications. A gradual drop in the number of references in the Academy's Transactions to practical political aspects of statistics reflects this shift.