This morning, while riding the express train to work, I stood facing one of those ubiquitous census ads and, for the first time, began considering its wording in earnest. I am sure you’ve seen it too: “If we don’t know how many schoolchildren we have, how can we know how many schools to build? … If we don’t know how many people we have, how can we know how many hospitals to build?” And so on and so forth.
That the government should still pose such questions—innocent as they are—suggests that the so-called problem of economic calculation afflicts the endeavors of central planners today no less than it did in the 1920s, when Ludwig Von Mises first set it forth. Not only that, but the government has also failed to find tools more efficacious in tackling this problem than the nationwide survey—that is, the census. And what a crude device that is!
For one thing, any information collected through it soon becomes outdated, since the census is taken at intervals of no less than 10 years, during which time a lot can happen in terms of economic development and population shifts. For another, delivering the surveys to every doorstep in the country, entreating the citizens to fill them out, and ensuring that a tolerable number of them actually do so amounts to an onerous affair not cheap to orchestrate—as is plainly evinced by the handsome budget of $11.3 billion allocated to the accomplishment thereof. And for all the pains that go into collecting it, this information winds up reaching the government incomplete and only approximately accurate—the proportion of falsified surveys that alloy the census results being a matter of contentious and largely partisan debate.