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State Authority and the 2020 Census

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The business of government never ceases—even in the middle of a global pandemic. Americans sheltering at home are likely encountering advertisements about a seemingly mundane government exercise: the 2020 census. The advertisements emphasize that responding to the census ensures that communities get fair representation in Congress and their share of federal tax dollars.

The census is one of the oldest ways that the state gathers data about its population. Collecting and producing data is a core state activity: in fact, the word “statistic” derives from the Latin word for “state.” Accurate information for planning, monitoring, and enforcement across a wide variety of domains of state activity.

Statistics are the way states see and understand their population. But many countries in the developing world have informational blind spots that manifest as gaps or inaccuracies in their data. Researchers and economic planners regard these statistical problems as hurdles to overcome. My book, Crippling Leviathan, embraces them as an opportunity.

Crippling Leviathan is about the problem of “ungoverned” space, pockets of territory where state authority is contested or absent. One challenge that has bedeviled the scholarship on ungoverned space is measuring the variation in state presence—determining where the state does and does not govern its territory. National data provide an incomplete picture; they tell us which states have state authority deficiencies but not where within states those deficiencies are. Subnational data have started to fill in the story, but are often missing precisely because state authority is low.

National data provide an incomplete picture; they tell us which states have state authority deficiencies but not where within states those deficiencies are.

Crippling Leviathan treats the data problem as a feature rather than a bug. The core insight is that absent or inaccurate information is information. That is, the ability to collect accurate information about the population tells us something about where and to what degree the state exercises authority.

The census is an excellent example. Unlike the United States, where individuals can respond to the census online, by phone, or by mail, many developing countries conduct censuses via household interviews. For these states, the census is a massive exercise in state power: it requires administrative capacity as well as a significant mobilization of labor. States that cannot conduct censuses are unlikely to be doing much else effectively.

The goal of the census is to generate accurate information. In the case of age data, there are two sources of inaccuracy that are intimately related to state authority—which therefore makes census accuracy a useful way to assess state presence.

For these states, the census is a massive exercise in state power: it requires administrative capacity as well as a significant mobilization of labor.

The first source is interviewer error, which occurs when interviewers shirk their duties. They are more likely to do so when confronting unsafe conditions related to state authority gaps: physical insecurity or inadequate infrastructure. Because interviewers cannot turn in empty forms, they make up data. The second source of error is respondent error, which occurs when respondents do not know their precise ages. Knowledge of one’s age in precise quantitative terms is only relevant in societies where the state has given meaning to age through regulation. Individuals pressed for an answer on the age question will give their best guess.

In both cases, individuals do not provide random numbers—even when they attempt to be random. Rather, they tend to favor certain terminal digits, such as numbers ending in 0 or 5. This tendency appears in aggregated data as an excess of ages in ending in 0s and 5s, far more than one would expect in a natural population. The data are clearly inaccurate. But inaccurate does not mean useless.

The data are clearly inaccurate. But inaccurate does not mean useless.

Crippling Leviathan uses this insight to study the topic of ungoverned space in ways that had not previously been possible. The book leverages a quantitative indicator of age accuracy to show where state authority is weak or absent. It then deploys that indicator in statistical analyses that test the book’s primary argument about the causes of ungoverned space. The evidence is powerful and persuasive: foreign subversion weakens the state.


Melissa M. Lee is Assistant Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. She is the author of Crippling Leviathan: How Foreign Subversion Weakens the State. Visit melissamlee.com for more information.

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