Customer Reviews: Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed
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on November 18, 2001
James Scott is known for portraying the moral world of peasants, showing how they have resisted the encroachment of capitalism and the state. Now he investigates the other side: the experts, bureaucrats, and revolutionaries whose grandiose schemes to improve the human condition have inflicted untold misery on the twentieth century. Seeing Like a State can be read, along with Foucault's Discipline and Punish and James Ferguson's The Anti-Politics Machine, as a classic of 'structural dysfunctionalism.' The point (put metaphorically) is not merely that the cure for social ills has proven inadequate-but that the disease inhered in the diagnosis, and that failure will continue so long as the doctors prevail.
The dysfunction, Scott argues, derived from three modern conditions. One was the ambition to remake society (and ecology) to conform to a rational plan. It is the conviction-expressed by such varied characters as Robert Owen, Le Corbusier, and Mao (pp. 117, 341)-that the present is a blank sheet, to be inscribed at will. Putting this into effect required a second condition: comprehensive information about individuals and property, gathered by a centralized bureaucracy. The third condition, what made the combination lethal, was a state sufficiently powerful to force its radically rational schemes on their 'beneficiaries.' This was characteristic of post-revolutionary and post-colonial regimes, and so the book devotes chapters to collectivization in the Soviet Union and ujamaa 'villagization' in Tanzania. But the basic vision, Scott emphasizes, was common to experts everywhere. Three Americans planned a Soviet sovkhoz in their Chicago hotel room; a democratic populist built Brasília, which is also accorded a chapter.
In probing the pathology of planning, Scott brilliantly exposes how experts conflated aesthetics with efficiency. They believed that social and ecological organization was rational only insofar as it conformed to their visual aesthetic (here called 'high modernism'). This meant the repetition of identical units, preferably in the form of a geometrical grid. It also entailed spatial segregation: each activity or entity must be allocated its own place. Polycropping was thus anathema to agricultural scientists, as mixed-use was to urban planners. What experts envisaged, of course, was how the thing appeared-from above-on a map or in a model. Along with aesthetics went gigantism, as scale too was confused with efficiency. The space of the plan existed outside geographical locality and historical contingency-obstacles to be eradicated. An ideal city, for example, could be sited anywhere in the world; once built, it would never change. Planners created new spaces in order to create new people, the productive and contented automatons imagined by (say) Frederick Taylor or Lenin.
In analyzing their failure, Scott is most valuable for drawing parallels between society and ecology. Collectivized agriculture was doubly deficient, in its use of natural resources and of human beings. Forests as well as cities created on geometrical lines inevitably degenerated. In both realms, radical 'simplifications' destroyed the adaptability and stability that had evolved organically. Scott introduces the Greek word 'metis' (crafty intelligence) to describe the local, unwritten knowledge gained through practice or accumulated over generations. It was adequate to the diversity of natural environments, and was distributed throughout society. This kind of knowledge was disregarded or dismissed by experts. And yet, ironically, their plans would have been still more disastrous without the metis of people subjected to them. Collectivized peasants farmed private plots for the black market; workers in Brasília built shantytowns outside the city.
From an anarchist understanding, Scott has come close to Edmund Burke (never cited directly, though see p. 424). Two centuries ago, he witnessed the eruption of utopian schemes in France and their imposition on India, and realized that the combination of abstract reason and untrammeled power is infinitely destructive. "I cannot conceive how any man can ... consider his country as nothing but carte blanche-upon which he may scribble whatever he pleases." His defense of 'prejudice' resembles Scott's appreciation of metis. The similarity is remarkable given their inimical ideals, aristocratic hierarchy versus democratic equality. If Scott does not fully appreciate his affinity with Burkean conservatism, he does not quite extricate himself from Hayekian liberalism (see p. 8). He succeeds in showing how the ideas behind collectivized agriculture came from plans for giant capitalist farms. Nevertheless, liberal economies are not so prone to pathological dysfunction, because firms are constrained by the need to attract free labor and to make profits. True, as Scott observes, the state often favors inefficient large enterprises (like plantations) because they are easily taxed; they also wield sufficient influence to obtain protection. The reader is left, however, wondering how he will resist being appropriated by opponents of (democratic) 'big government.'
Other questions too remain. Scott asserts a continuity of aim between absolutism and totalitarianism; twentieth-century states simply fulfilled the dreams of their dynastic precursors. Do we really know that such vaunting ambition was common to rulers everywhere, or was it peculiar to Europe since the Renaissance? Scott's critique of pseudo-rational knowledge bears directly on our own disciplines. Many versions of social science proceed from the same assumptions that have been falsified in the ghastly experiments of our century. How can social scientists analyze the irreducible complexity of society, generalize without effacing the particularity of history and geography? In raising such difficult-and fruitful-questions, Seeing like a State is a book of immense importance. It must be read by anyone seeking to understand the modern world.
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on December 15, 1998
This is one of the most brilliant and inspiring books that I've read in a long time. James C. Scott's thesis is that states, driven by both the need to make the societies they govern legible for tax and control purposes, and by an ideology and aesthetic that equates functional order and progress with real order, systematically transform social realities. Moreover, they often do this to the detriment of their peoples and bring about long-term damage to the environment. One important human loss in this process is the erosion of practical skills and local knowledge in the fact of a hegemony of scientific knowledge and educated technical expertise. It would be hard to do justice to Scott's work in a few lines. He illustrates his thesis with a variety of case studies: Enlightenment scientific forestry, modernist town planning inspired by Le Corbusier, the disagreement between Lenin and Luxemburg on revolutionary agency, Soviet collectivisation of agriculture, compulsory villagisation in Tanzania and agriculture in the Third World. The whole amounts to a pretty devastating critique of a whole way of looking at the world, a top-down modernist perspective that ignores the lived experience and judgement of those whose interests are supposedly being furthered. Some might think that Scott's message is old news, a rehash of Hayekian critiques of central planning. Whilst there are many points in common, Scott is addressing a wider syndrome. The practical judgement, skill and local knowledge of peasants, educators, workers and those in many other walks of life , is at risk not only from state bureaucrats but also from the global capitalist market. Buyers for supermarkets, for instance, ride roughshod over the expertise of local farmers by perhaps requiring that they grow crops unsuited for their region. The only way of doing this successfully is to make extensive use of fertilisers and pesticides. Whilst bureaucrats and visionaries armed with scientific knowledge seek to construct and ordered and clean world, we can at least take some comfort in Scott's documenting of the fact that these plans never really work. The ceteris paribus conditions that hold in the lab, fail to hold in the world where ceteris is never paribus. The needs that city planners plan for are always far to simply understood by them - real city life being a far more complex order than planners comprehend (Scott draws on Jane Jacobs here). In reality these utopian schemes always foster a `dark twin' a parallel to the constitutional order in which cunning, barter, improvisation and compromise are reintroduced to compensate for the defects in the model. Read this book: the next time a manager with a clipboard talks to you about the need for `total quality assurance' (or some similar phrase) and dismisses your years of practical experience and judgement, you'll understand a little better where they're coming from and how to fight them.
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on November 27, 2006
Brad DeLong's featured review is basically correct - Scott is treading ground remarkably similar to Hayek's. But I don't think that Scott is ignorant of Hayek. Rather, Scott is attempting to explore the same territory, but without coming to the same political conclusions. Early in this book, Scott makes clear that he is not advocating libertarianism (I am told that Scott calls himself an anarchist). He is aiming at a deeper critique of planning, one which is not merely about prices or information, but about metaphysics, epistemology and phenomenology. Scott never makes it explicit, but throughout this book, I got the sense that he is doing continental philosophy. This is a Heideggerian critique of planning - one that just happens to cover some of the same ground as Hayek.

Scott's focus is on "seeing" like a (high modernist) state; the question this book asks is: how does such a state see, and what does state-like perception systematically miss? Scott argues the state's vision is limited to the conscious, the rational, and the abstract - it cannot see beyond what Nassim Nicholas Taleb has called "the Platonic fold." (See The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable) This vision is identical to what continental philosophers refer to as the "objective gaze." The unconscious, the organic, the ecological and the folk-wise are invisible to the modernist bureaucracy. To make these invisible elements rationally "legible," the state reaches out and actively reduces them to known quantities. This allows the state some limited control over them, but in the process any emergent systematic properties are destroyed.

It is tempting to conclude that this book is a generalized critique of government. It is not. The mistakes Scott identifies are characteristic only of a certain type of regime, the high modernist state. High modernism, as Scott identifies it, is a sort of irrational confidence in objective rationality. It becomes possible on a large scale only after the Enlightenment, and especially after the advent of "scientific" management. It is epitomized not only by Stalin, but by Robert McNamara's Department of Defense, and the US Bureau of Reclamations. Nor is it limited to states. Systematic flaws exist in the perception of any large hierarchical organization that makes decisions on the basis of abstract calculative rationality. As such, this is ultimately a much more profound critique than Hayek's.

DeLong is right that this book is not as well-written or organized as it could have been, but the synthesis of Hayek and Heidegger is absolute genius. It makes the book a classic in my view.
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on December 9, 2010
I haven't read the book yet, though I expect to like it bigtime -- James C. Scott is great. The reason I'm putting my 2 cents in here is to warn people away from ordering the Kindle version of the book.

It's crap. Not the writing, which is dandy and which I'm eager to read more of. It's the layout and spacing of the Kindle edition that are godawful. Yale University Press did a *horrible* job of producing this Kindle edition. It's the gappiest-looking bunch of text I've ever looked at. One line will be crammed full of words while the following line will have only two words in it, surrounded by all kinds of empty space. It's a mess. It looks like something laid-out by 6 year olds, and I found it unreadable.

Hats off to Amazon, by the way. When I wrote customer service to complain they got back to me within a couple of hours and gave me a full refund.
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on December 22, 2007
This book is probably best summarized by its moral: The most successful systems are those that exploit the knowledge of all their people, rather than assuming that society can be changed from the top. All the knowledge of how the world actually works, and the actual complexity of getting things done, resides in the people who need to do it, rather than in the minds of planners far from the action. Beware of those who believe that the people's indigenous ways are backwards, pre-scientific and ignorant; in reality, though the people's methods may not have all the rigor of the latest scientific theories, they are likely to be precisely adapted to all the complexity of the world around them.

But Seeing Like A State is much more than that. It is a thoroughly documented attack on high-modernist thinking. This is the mindset of a Le Corbusier, who comes in for a thorough lashing at Scott's hands. Le Corbusier and his disciples decided that modern cities were all wrong: their "chaotic" layout must indicate that they were corrupt and unworkable within. Jane Jacobs most famously tore into that fundamental confusion in The Death and Life of Great American Cities : surface chaos actually conceals remarkable underlying purpose and form. Scott takes a lot from Jacobs. Along with the classical anarchists, she seems to be his biggest inspiration.

The high-modernist ideal is at its worst when it's combined with infinite state power. Combine these two and you get the evils of the former Soviet Union: shift peasants off their plots into "modern" industrial agriculture and force them to adhere to the latest theories of geometric crop planting -- theories like monoculture, identically spaced crops ... all very geometrical and orderly in the mind of someone who's not imaginative enough to see past the surface. And this mindset assumes throughout that the people must just be ignorant: they mustn't want to live in crowded cities; they mustn't know what they're doing when they farm their polycultured, "chaotic" crops. When combined with state power, the expert is the designated local god. That way lies ruin.

In a lot of respects, this is not an argument against experts, though it could be misconstrued that way. For one thing, scientific experts really do have a lot to contribute to, say, peasant agronomy, and they really can contribute a lot to improving (say) rural sanitation. The trouble is when a few threads come together:

1. Ignorance of local conditions.
2. Confusing the thing being modeled with the model itself.
3. The desire to make the world look like the laboratory
4. The power to turn items 1 through 3 into reality.

Item 4 is what makes Seeing Like A State into an argument for anarchism. States get most of Scott's ire, because they do bequeath this power onto dictators. But industry comes in for a spanking, too. In fact chapter 8 of Seeing Like A State is the next logical thing to read after The Omnivore's Dilemma: it explores at a slightly different level the problems with scientific farming as it's practiced in the United States. Rather than adapt farming to local conditions, American agriculture bends the natural world to its particular model of how farming should be done. This includes monoculture, whose predictable consequence is the rise of pests that are adapted to eat that monocultured crop. The next step in the game, if you're an American agricultural conglomerate, is to spray loads of pesticides on your fields. Evolution can play the game too, though, so it responds by building pests who are better adapted to those pesticides. And so the arms race continues. And so the soil erodes, the pesticide runoff blackens, and so forth.

The root of that whole war is the assumption that nature should play the game our way, rather than that we should bend to it. In turn, this monomania is a consequence of straight-ahead economic logic that asks what a profit-maximizing firm (farm) would do, then produces an unambiguous answer: maximize output. When cost and output are the only variables, the model is very clear. It's only clear, of course, if you ignore other things, such as long-term soil degradation. Including these other variables would complicate the model. And, again, if you confuse the model with the thing being modeled, you come to believe that maximizing output is unambiguously and objectively good, rather than being the result of a fixed set of assumptions.

This is a relentlessly powerful and unbelievably sad book: it picks off, one by one, the forces that made the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries look grotesque. It suffers from some verbosity; like Robert Caro's biography of Robert Moses, though, it always manages to save itself within a few paragraphs of where your patience starts to wear thin. The sections on Russian collectivization, the Tanzanian Ujamaa, Le Corbusier, and the creation of Brasília, in particular, are worth the price of admission on their own. In all these cases, the thing that the experts created was meant -- quite consciously -- to negate the society around it. Brasília was the anti-São Paulo, for instance. Only by relocating to an unoccupied spot in Brazil and starting afresh could the experts create the world as "science" told them it was meant to be made. The consequences were predictable: starvation in Tanzania and in Russia, and a city in Brazil that only survives because people color outside the lines.

Rather than go theoretically very deep, Scott insists on painting the details vividly; I assume this was a stylistic choice, in keeping with the theme that all the intelligence in a system is at the "edge of the network." Don't write like someone positioned at the center, I imagine Scott saying to himself; write like you're at the edge. And so he does. This is where a lot of his verbosity comes from.

I have only two wishes for this book:

1. I wish it gave some more criteria by which to judge modern-day schemes organized by experts. As luck would have it, for instance, my roommate pointed me to a video of William McDonough describing his plans for new Chinese cities -- McDonough being one of the Cradle to Cradle guys. The Chinese government has asked McDonough to apply cradle-to-cradle principles to city design; it looks like he's building a number of 400,000-person cities for them. If you watch the video, and you have the "beware experts with unlimited power" principle in mind, you'll wonder whether McDonough's work is another Brasília. His model city surely has the geometric perfection and cleverness of a Brasília or an Ujamaa village. Should I be scared of it?

Probably the answer is simple, if we're listening to Scott. We need to ask McDonough, "Did you consult with residents to ask how they feel about this city? Or did you impose it from on high, using seemingly perfect principles of architecture and resource conservation?" Like all principles, Scott's are guidelines rather than rules, but it stands to reason that the people who know how to live are the people who'll be doing the living, not their overlords.

2. I'd like more examples of successful scientific interventions. Without them, Scott's book occasionally sounds anti-scientific. Surely it's not that, but the absence of positive examples makes that a sensible interpretation.

The $100-billion development question is: how do we combine expert scientific research with indigenous experimentation? How can the West bring its science to nations that could really use the help, without being scientific imperialists about it? What could Western science bring back from Africa and Asia? The Western model of industrial agriculture is really broken, or so it seems to a lot of knowledgeable folks; it would be really helpful to get a rigorous scientific understanding of sustainability from people who've sustained their agriculture for thousands of years. I would have liked Scott to provide examples of fruitful two-way collaboration.

This book will appeal to a lot of people. It'll appeal to those who have already taken Jane Jacobs's messages about cities to heart. For that matter, it'll remind a lot of people why they love cities. It goes into more depth on Soviet collectivization than many of us will have encountered. And it will make us think twice before we allow experts to reshape communities from on high.
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on August 31, 2006
Scott's book gets off to a very good start, arguing that the roots of "high modernism" run deep in a particular world view that grew with scientific culture, but lacks its elements of ruthless self-criticism. What impressed me was his grasp of this ideology as a culture, albeit a culture of a few. Science too is a culture, and this phenomenon is the mentality of the technicians, the engineers, the planners...once they gain power. As one who works in this milieu, although not with the power elite, it rang very true.

He also does a wonderful job of skewering the cultural and aesthetic pretensions of people like Le Corbusier, although this has been done very well by others as well. But Scott does a very good job of showing how the aesthetic was the political, although nobody would admit it.

Unfortunately, after the first two chapters or so, Scott's writing loses its force and wonders about, making no very impressive points, and relating interesting annecdotes, providing intriguing descriptions of bad situations, but not advancing or deepening his argument.
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on April 10, 2003
The above reviewer, Stirling S Newberry, writes, "The book is part of a useful discussion, but the context and knowledge to engage in it does not seem to be present at this time. Unfortunate."
Actually, what is most unfotunate is that Newberry failed to that Scott allows his assertions regarding social engineering at the behest of an individual state apply just as well to, for example, international aid regimes and foreign hegemons who strive to "remake" the world and its societies after a single vision (8).
Scott's concern in Seeing Like a State is to make a case against an "imperial or hegemonic planning mentality that excludes the necessary role of local knowledge and know-how. Scott goes on to argue, "The most tragic episodes of state-initiated social engineering originate in a pernicious combination of four elements." The first is a simplification and aggregation of facts. Scott argues that states manipulate otherwise complex, dynamic, discrete and often unique circumstances into simplified, static, aggregated, and standardized data, and that these form unrealistic "snapshots" which often miss the most vital aspects of the situation. The second is what Scott terms "high-modernist ideology." Scott defines this as "a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws." The combination of these two elements can be devastating when the third element, an authoritarian state, is "willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring the high-modernist designs into being" over the fourth element, "a prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans."
Throughout his work, Scott provides evidence that centrally managed social plans inevitably go awry. The reason for this, he argues, is that state imposed development initiatives wreak havoc upon the complex social interdependencies of peoples who, in the first place, are not adequately understood. Scott argues that for development initiatives to be successful, they must have their starting point in, first, the recognition of, and then the incorporation of, local, practical knowledge. He states that such forms of knowledge are just as important as "formal, epistemic knowledge." He thus argues against the sorts of developmental theories and practices that disregard metis.
In detailing the general methodology in which states have gone about solving the problem of underdevelopment, Scott argues that states-usually represented by aloof bureaucrats sitting in offices-approach development from the proverbial "bird's eye view" without adequately accounting for, and incorporating, the proverbial "worm's eye view." Such social engineering, Scott asserts, requires the simplification and standardization of complex facts, and in the process, essential knowledge of the facts are lost. At its worst, the result is tragedy, disaster, and human suffering. At its best, unplanned outcomes result, usually at great human and state expense.
Scott contrasts state simplifications with metis, which he defines as, "a wide array of practical skills and acquired intelligence in responding to a constantly changing natural human environment." Examples of metis are farmers knowing when to plant by looking at when the leaves on certain local trees begin to sprout, or describing the size of a farm by the number of workers needed to tend it, rather than by acreage. One region may have highly labor-intensive land, while another may not be so intensive. Forcing land to be described in terms of acreage negates this useful information, which information is the key thing lost in return for the "standardization" of discourse and knowledge. As well, when states and development planners dictate that all collective farms must plant at the same time, local knowledge is again lost-along with, Scott shows with a multitude of case studies, productivity.
Scott develops his argument to show that when citizens, events, cultural characteristics of peoples, and the natural environment are not easily standardized and quantifiable, there is an incentive for the state to alter the population to fit the desired "measurements" and proper "standards." For example, states privatize collectively owned lands to tax them more easily. In order to track more easily "consolidated" people into a larger development vision, the state forces villagers with deep historical roots to adopt surnames. Even if this means altering the very fabric of their society, the "larger" goals must give way to "smaller" visions. Scott states that, "the builders of the modern nation-state do not merely describe, observe, and map; they strive to shape a people and landscape that will fit their techniques of observation." Scott is prolific in citing historical examples to support his claims.
Many among the Haitian peasantry would sum up Scott's arguments with a Haitian proverb: "The big branch at the top of the tree thinks it has the best view, but it fails to see the sights enjoyed by the little bud tossed about by the wind." Damage therefore is the result.
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on July 24, 2012
In a world where governments continually seek to invade personal privacy, control the elements, clump humanity into categories and relentlessly attempt to socially engineer their populations, Scott seeks to make sense of the situation by explaining the why and how behind governmental actions, making "the case for the indispensable role of practical knowledge, informal processes, and improvisation in the face of unpredictability." Perhaps Scott sums it up best when he says, "Much of this book can be read as a case against the imperialism of high modernist, planned social order." Every part of this book is clear and concise. This is a rare gem among modern academia.
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on February 26, 2004
How do states and empires control people and landscapes, and why do their attempts so often tragically fail? Agrarian theorist James Scott answers this question boldly and provocatively in Seeing like a State. States (and all of us) simplify a complicated world in order first to understand and then ultimately to change and control the world around us. Indeed, at the root of much of our modern daily activity and thinking is a great deal of simplification-we invent categories, we exclude variables, we limit diversity, we simplify.
For states, the problem with the world is that it is impossibly messy. It is, to use Scott's most brilliant metaphor, illegible. Within every state's territory-especially huge modern imperial states-there exist diverse ecologies, diverse peoples with myriad customs and linguistic dialects, and a variety of local customs. In order to control these areas (i.e. to prevent rebellion, social unrest, starvation) and in order to exploit them (i.e. to use natural resources, to make money, to raise armies) states first must be able to read them. They must make them legible. And herein begins the process of simplification that so profoundly shapes modern bureaucracy. States standardize landholdings, blotting out old inheritance and geographical patterns. States work to simplify ecologies, turning complex ecosystems into streamlined, productive, and micro-managed forests or monocrop fields. States standardize languages, substituting myriad local dialects with a uniform King's English. And they create huge lists, cadastral maps, registers, etc., which they use to describe their holdings and the people who live in them. With these documents, they reshape the world according to their own simplified categories, and according to their own top-down priorities.
The problem here, Scott shows, is that state efforts at making the world legible result not only in a simplified worldview, but in an unrealistically OVERsimplified approach to statecraft, with tragic consequences. State efforts to control ecology, for example, often take no account of local conditions, local ecosystems, and the subsistence patterns that local inhabitants have developed for centures on the landscape. In the effort to scientifically manage forests, Scott shows, states often ignore the ways in which biodiversity is needed to protect soil fertility. After ten years as a state-managed forest, the landscape is barren. Likewise, in an effort to chop the landscape up into easily taxable units, the state will often destroy local landholding patterns developed to provide each inhabitant with a slice of land in each different local micro-climate. While the local solution was carefully planned to give each inhabitant access to a pond, let's say, the top-down state solution puts the pond on one single person's land, in the interest of simplified cadastral mapping. The result is disorder when a drought comes and everybody wants access to that pond.
The main theme of this book concerns the tension between local solutions, often brilliantly adapted to climate and ecosystem, and top-down state solutions, which are simplified and made with an eye towards state goals like taxation and social control. Scott shows that when the civil society is weak, the top-down approach of high-modernist state planners will usually win out over local adaptations and destroy them. The catastrophic results, as illustrated in several well-told chapters in this book, make the reader understand the limits of state planning, and the virtues of local control.
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on November 1, 1998
There is a lot that is excellent in James Scott's _Seeing Like a State_. It begins with a romp through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German forestry--and the failure of the foresters to understand the ecology of the forests that they were trying to manage. It continues with a brief digression on how states tried to gain control of their populations through maps, boulevards, and names. These are prequels to a vicious and effective critique of what Scott calls "high modernism": the belief that the planner--whether Le Corbusier designing a city, Vladimir Lenin designing a planned economy, or Julius Nyerere "villagizing" the people of Tanzania--knows best, and can move humans and their lives around on as if on a chessboard to create utopia.
Then the focus appears to waiver. There is a chapter on agriculture in developing economies that characterizes agricultural extension efforts from the first to the third world as analogous to Lenin's nationalization of industry, or Nyerere's forced resettlement of Tanzanians. But the targets -- the agricultural extenders who dismiss established practices -- lose solidity and become shadows. They are no longer living, breathing, powerful rulers,; instead they are the "credo of American agriculture," the "catechism of high- modernist agriculture," the "high-modernist aesthetic and ideology of most colonial trained agronomists and their Western-trained successors" -- truly straw men.
The conclusion is a call for social systems that recognize the importance of what Scott calls "metis": a Greek word for the practical knowledge that a skilled and experienced worker has of his craft. Most such practical knowledge cannot be easily summarized and simple rules, and much of it remains implicit: the devil is in the details. T he key fault of "high modernism," as Scott understands it, is its belief that details don't matter -- that planners can decree from on high, people obey, and utopia result.
Well before the end of the book an economist is struck by a strong sense of deja vu. Scott's declarations of the importance of the detailed practical knowledge possessed by the person-on-the-spot -- of how such knowledge cannot be transmitted up any hierarchy to those-in-charge in a way to do any good--of how the locus of decision-making must remain with those who have the craft to understand the situation--of how any system that functions at all must create and maintain a space in which there is sufficient flexibility for craftsmen to exercise their metis (even if the hierarchs of the system pretend not to notice this flexibility)--all of these strike an economist as very, very familiar.
All of these seem familiar to economists because they are the points made by Ludwig von Mises (1920) and Friedrich Hayek (1937) and the other Austrian economists in their pre-World War II debate with socialists over the possibility of central planning. Hayek's adversaries--Oskar Lange and company--argued that a market system had to be inferior to a centrally-planned system: at the very least, a centrally-planned economy could set up internal decision-making procedures that would mimic the market, and the central planners could also adjust things to increase social welfare and account for external effects in a way that a market system could never do. Hayek, in response, argued that the functionaries of a central-planning board could never succeed, because they could never create both the incentives and the flexibility for the people-on-the-spot to exercise what Scott calls metis.
Today all economists--even those who are very hostile to Hayek's other arguments (that government regulation of the money supply lies at the root of the business cycle, that political attempts to reduce inequalities in the distribution of income lead to totalitarianism, that the competitive market is the "natural spontaneous order" of human society) -- agree that Hayek and company hit this particular nail squarely on the head. Looking back at the seventy-year trajectory of Communism, it seems very clear that Hayek (and Scott) are right: that its principal flaw is its attempt to concentrate knowledge, authority, and decision-making power at the center rather than pushing the power to act, the freedom to do so, and the incentive to act productively out to the periphery where the people-on-the-spot have the local knowledge to act effectively.
In short, by the end of his book James Scott has argued himself into the intellectual positions adopted by Friedrich Hayek back before World War II. Yet throughout the book Scott appears to be ignorant that the intellectual terrain which he has reached has already been well-explored.
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