[OUTLOOK]Subjugating Korea’s statisticsThe Ministry of Finance and Economy recently submitted a bill for revised statistics laws to the Finance and Economy Committee of the National Assembly. The main points include that a private statistics institute that conducts important projects will be appointed as a government-designated institute and that the government will check its working procedures and announcements regularly. In short, the bill will give the government the right to control the private body’s statistics.
No advanced countries have tried to revise their statistics laws in this direction. This idea seems especially suspicious from the Roh Administration because statistics provided by the government have shown problems in accuracy and reliability. Recently, the JoongAng Ilbo and the Ministry of Planning and Budget fought over the real size of government spending. The current administration has aroused a lot of suspicion about its statistics.
The number of house owners differs by millions between different ministries. The statistics on irregular workers proved to be wrong, and the minister in charge apologized for that. The statistics on landowners across the country and the data on the rates of acceptance to Seoul National University in northern and southern Seoul also turned out to be wrong. Another government institute, the Korea National Statistical Office, revealed this inaccuracy. And now the government is trying to control a private company’s statistics.
“Statistics” and “state” are closely related and the words even share the same origin. According to Max Weber, what characterizes a modern bureaucratic state is “dominance by knowledge.” During the formation of a nation-state, public knowledge is developed in the form of statistics.
Of course, statistics are not always right or necessary. There is a saying that there are three types of lies ― “lies, damned lies and statistics.” Despite that, good statistical information is a universal sign of an advanced country. Unreliable or fabricated statistics are an “enemy of the state.” In general, South Korea has been regarded as one of the best countries for statistics. In the private sector, economic organizations or companies’ research centers had few problems in producing and distributing statistical data. Statistical data is no longer dominated by the government. It is a good thing that the government and the private sector compete with each other in producing statistics. Government dominance or control of statistics can only happen in socialist states or totalitarian regimes.
The Roh administration, however, is trying to retreat from the status of an advanced country in terms of statistics. The government said that the purpose of the revised statistics laws was not to control private companies’ figures but to check the quality of their work. But who can believe this, when the statistics produced by the government have proven inaccurate?
We wonder if the government wants to have statistics under its control, because they cause too much trouble. There is another reason for this suspicion. The government designed new regulations for newspaper publishers in a bid to deal with some newspapers that were not friendly to the current administration. Under the new laws, the government intended to intervene in the formation of public opinion. Those newspaper laws and the revised statistics laws have one thing in common: For political purpose, the government tries to control the public sector and markets by misusing its power. This is an authoritarian way to solve a problem.
It is receivers of statistics who decide what are accurate and reliable data. It is readers who judge each newspaper’s quality. The government tries to achieve better quality in private companies’ statistics and ensure freedom of speech in the press. The current government is simply “too kind.” Well, the citizens’ answer is, “No, thanks.”
* The writer is a professor of sociology at the Graduate School of Environmental Studies at Seoul National University.
by Jun Sang-in