A quantitative social science was born of high hopes that social phenomena could be studied with the same precision as natural phenomena, yielding exact knowledge applicable in practical and political contexts. Yet the 18th-century conviction that the methods of natural science could be made to apply to all fields of knowledge hesitated at the crossroads of theoretical and practical goals in political economy.
The practical obstacles were daunting. Efficient collection and utilization of data required not only a firm institutional base (such as political arithmetic enjoyed in Sweden), but also workable methods for reducing masses of information to manageable and functional tables. How were consumption, efficiency, or the utility of diplomacy to be assessed and expressed in numerical terms? How were soil quality, popular morale, or unexploited natural resources to be set down in tables? The ambition to embrace society in its entirety overreached the practical limitations of 18th-century quantitative analysis.
The relationship between state and statistics in the 18th century was a complicated one. The more closely the quantitative method was linked to the interests of the state and the more obviously its political function was defined, the greater the danger that the method itself would be undermined. If the practical application of a science normally strengthens its empirical character, here the opposite seems to prevail. In England the quantitative method strayed from empiricism as it became more closely identified with a national strategy for prosperity. In the state-directed, accelerated program for progress in Sweden, quantitative social analysis slipped into a rut of utopianism that led nowhere. Only by reducing its field of operation to vital statistics did quantitative social analysis meet with success. In Germany, the development of a quantitative approach was contingent upon freeing statistics from the ideology of the state.
In England and Sweden, mercantilism had fostered a mechanistic view of society that favored quantitative social analysis. As society was broken down into its material components of population, resources, industry, and so on, so the populace was composed of faceless, voiceless atoms. The quantitative program further reduced the individual to an equivalence in work or capital value. In Germany, where cameralism, not mercantilism, held sway, more complex concepts of Land and Leute argued against the reduction of social well-being to a set of material components or the reduction of human beings to interchangeable particles.
It is noteworthy that social statistics on the quantitative, English model reached a zenith in Sweden around 1750, just when Swedish natural science was flourishing. Thus in 18th-century Sweden, as in 17th-century England, quantitative social science grew in the same soil as a vigorous and prestigious natural science.