That census debate, late Victorian edition

by Colby Cosh

The objections to the census on Biblical grounds are now a thing of the past; the objections on the ground that the census is inquisitorial have also, there is good reason to believe, gradually lost their force… it is now agreed among all civilized nations that a census is a useful and desirable thing.

Thus spake the scientist and administrator G.B. Longstaff (1849-1921) in an address to the Royal Statistical Society on June 25, 1889. Longstaff’s discussion of the imperial census activity scheduled for 1891 sheds fascinating light on today’s Canadian debate: I’m not sure anyone has yet pointed out, as Longstaff did that night, that New France, Acadia, and Newfoundland are where the first censuses of any kind since antiquity were taken, and that only then did the idea return to find acceptance in Old Europe.

It took about fifty years, mind you, to convince the restless, suspicious people of Britain to accept even the most rudimentary nose-count; among the new factors which predisposed them to accept it was Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). (As time goes by I become more convinced that Malthus, for his approach rather than his conclusions, belongs to the rank of Hume and Adam Smith in the history of ideas, and may even approach that of Newton and Darwin.) Readers will find matter of particular interest in Part II of the body of Longstaff’s address, wherein he discusses what questions it is appropriate to ask in a census. He commences, perhaps revealing his training as a lepidopterist, with a taxonomic observation:

Statisticians may be divided into two classes, (a) those who clamour for much information on many subjects, even though such information be confessedly very imperfect; and (b) those who, being of a more sceptical turn of mind, prefer to ask for very little, and to concentrate their efforts on getting that little with the greatest attainable accuracy.


That census debate, late Victorian edition

  1. Sure, but the Royal Statistical Society would have been totally in the tank (see what I did there?) for statistics. WHERE'S THE OTHER SIDE!!! OMG LIBERAL BIAS MEDIA!!!!!

  2. Thanks for the link, Cosh. I enjoy old sources. I did not know census' went back to Roman times and earlier. Interesting.

    I only read a few pages of Longstaff's address but he does not mention the Doomsday Book – which I had assumed, up to a few seconds ago, was the first census.

    • Berkamp,

      You didn’realise that the census went back to Roman times? Just why do you think Joseph and Mary went trundling across the desert 2,000 years ago?

      To paraphrase somebody commenting on the Maclean’s blogs, if Joseph and a nine-month pregnant Mary riding a donkey could hump it across the desert to Bethlehem in order to fulfill there census duties then it shouldn’t be a problem for us to fill out the long-form.

      • Joseph and Mary were either very civic minded folks or – in the alternative – maybe they just didn't fancy the idea of defying the Roman Emperor at the risk of their own lives.

        The first few times I saw this banality I resisted the urge to respond to it. But I'm only human.

        • It's even worse then that. The whole "return to your hometown" thing is a literary device, to move the birth of Jesus to the proper place to fufill prophecy. It was never required by any emperor, for any census. (what would be the point anyway?)

          I've heard Chris Hitchens, use this as a reason to believe that a real historical Jesus is likely. If there were no rabbi from Nazareth named Jesus, why wouldn't they just have had him born in the right place in the first place?

    • Actually, censuses have a long history in China, during periods of durable dynastic rule. The Han, Tang, Ming, and Qing dynasties all had them (at the very least). Accuracy fluctuated (like in the West, these were held for tax purposes, with the obvious consequent incentive to shirk), but historians generally have a much better idea of the historical path of Chinese population numbers than they do for Europe in the past two thousand years.

    • The Doomsday Book was definitely a census of sorts, if not up to modern standards in terms of design the intent was the same – to figure out who and what the state had to govern.

  3. I was intrigued by Longstaff's quote: "The House of Lords be it observed as on many occasions in our history taking the side that was believed to be that of popular rights and liberties."

    That comment still holds true today, and still surprises many today. But a Triple-E Senate is still absurd in modern Canada, of course.

  4. Those opposed to Clement may have a point. I think Clement does as well. However, this is simply not something that bothers me at all, and I suspect it's the same with most Canadians. So I think that the more heated the opposition becomes, the more Canadians will see the opposition and the media as out of touch.
    However, it's a little slow in the rest of the news lately, so what can you do?

    • Seems to me many of you conservative-minded folks presented the same arguments about prorogation and no one caring. .

      Now, I don't think you'll see protests in the streets over the Census issue.. but I think when folks see all these organizations and media editorials condemning this move for what it is – ideology and the attempt to remove data and facts from entering into policy discussions – it begins to resonate with people.

      • Until somebody thinks to mention that we've already decided to place a limit on collecting facts and collating data: I'm pretty sure you would find a lot of people who would object to, say, Canada hiring 32,000,000 Mexicans to follow every Canadian citizen around 24 hours a day and recording every thing the person does. This would be well understood as going too far: it wouldn't be too hard to envision being randomly selected to be followed by one of 300,000 Mexicans as similarly too far. From there, you aren't too many leaps before you're filling out forms (even worse than the Mexican, this is taking your own valuable time!) providing the government with information under penalty if you fail to do so or give unacceptable answers.

        Yet you're fully in favour of the 32,000,000 Mexican plan, right? After all, why would you object to removing data and facts from the government's possession where they could serve in policy discussions? That surely is the only factor to be considered in this!

        • Filling out the long form is "even worse than the Mexican" following you around?

          OK then. Nice to see the hyperbole is well under control here.

        • Why do you hate Mexicans?

      • Prorogation was not invented by Harper. Chritien did it more than Harper, where was your protest and caring then?

  5. Malthus has always been considered required reading in any decent Great Books program for precisely that reason, as well as for the impact that his ideas had on the course of society.

    • IIRC, Darwin read Malthus before (or during) his voyage on the Beagle, and it influence him on his theory of evolution by natural selection (I believe it went as such: since populations grew far too large for their environments, lots of individuals would die off, and those fit enough to survive would be the ones to reproduce, and so on).

  6. Reaching back to the 19th century, how about this observation, popularized by Mark Twain (born Clemens) and attributed to Benjamin Disraeli: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." Scrap the long form census! The short form is all we need. Let business marketers, pollsters, policy wonks, academics and other number crunchers pay for their own intrusive data collection. Taxpayers have no interest in subsidizing an activity that is used to manipulate opinions and behaviour.

    • Statscan charges for its stats. They only offer overviews for free.

  7. Hey look kids we founded, or at least implemented the whole idea of a census! – let 's make a stamp or something; maybe the International Institute of Censuses in St. Johns.

    Further, I want soldiers in the Congo UN Peace-Keeping and performing abortions, while, also, performing a census of some sort

    • But I will check out Malthus – and I am not being sarcastic

  8. I think the post is misleading. 1891 was in no way the first census, nor the first census in modern times nor the first in Canada. Presumably what Longstaff is arguing is that it is the first GOOD census.

  9. The irony is, who would have thought the Liberals would put themselves in the position of being FOR anything relating to mandatory disclosure to the state of so many individual facts about your personal, unique situation in life, under threat of fine and jail? The only thing more surprising about this is that the Conservatives are against it (the state using their power over individuals to get the information they want in such an institutionalized way), and want to voluntarily give up some of the governments power in this case.

    Even Jack Layton and the NDP are uncomfortable with this, as he suggested a compromise would be to remove the threat of jail time in this situation. But isn't that all Harper and the Conservatives were trying to do in the first place?

    So the NDP and the Conservatives are against jail time, and the Liberals are for fines and jail time and mandatory disclosure.

    It's either very ironic, or Harper has once again manipulated things, and tricked the Liberals into defaulting themselves into this postion.

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