James C. Scott on Seeing Like a State

I’ve posted a lot about dysfunctional organizations, both governmental and corporate.  I recently finished reading a brilliant book, SEEING LIKE A STATE: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, which shows that the things that bother me are not aberrations caused by the Bush and Obama administrations or by current corporate management, but are part of a long historical process.

seeinglikeastateThe author, James C. Scott’s, described how our institutions and ways of thinking evolved to give  rulers the means to monitor their subjects in order to control them.

Not many centuries ago, most people didn’t have surnames and given names, just local nicknames.  In the little town I grew up in, most people were better known by their nicknames than the names than the names on their birth certificates.  This may have been confusing to outsiders, but we knew who we were.

In order for individuals to be taxed and conscripted into military service, it is necessary for the ruler to know who they are.  That is why everyone must have a name that is a unique (for all practical purposes) identifier and, nowadays, an identification number as well.

Odd as it may now seem, there was a time when governments did not have records of everybody’s address (not every location had an address), marital status, criminal record and employment history.   People did not carry identification papers and were not required to show them.

But governments want their subjects to be visible, and over time this process accelerates.  There are benefits to this, of course.  But the more that governments have on file about us individually, the harder it is to escape the web of control.  The  culmination of the process Scott describes is the National Security Agency’s goal of having a data base that includes every human being on the planet.

Administrators’ growing knowledge leads to the pitfalls of what Scott called Authoritarian High Modernism (which Nassim Nicolas Taleb called the Soviet-Harvard illusion)—the application of  theory without a reality check.

The natural forest lived; the planned forest eventually died.

The natural forest lived; the planned forest eventually died.

One of Scott’s favorite examples is the rise and fall of German “scientific forestry” starting in the late 18th century.  Foresters cleared out old trees and underbrush, and planted neat rows of new trees, chosen for maximum production of wood fiber.  This worked well for a time, and then the new trees all started to die.  What the foresters had perceived as disorder was in reality an extremely subtle and complex ecology, which provided the vital nutrients the trees needed to survive.

The bulk of the book is devoted to four examples showing this kind of failure occurs in so-called scientific planning in human affairs—the architect Le Corbusier’s ideas of city planning, Lenin’s revolutionary dictatorship, Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture and Julius Nyerere’s “villagization” policy in Tanzania.  Radical city planning, Communism and collective farming were all discredited when Scott published his book in 1999.  HIs contribution was to show that they were not aberrations, but a product of intellectual errors which still are prevalent.

The first error of the High Modernists was to confuse science with the symbols of science.   Le Corbusier thought high rise buildings, broad boulevards and wide green spaces were scientific.  He made plans to maximize administrative and economic efficiency, and ignored the actual lives led by people in Paris and other cities.  Stalin’s and Nyerere’s planners, and their kindred spirits in American agri-business, thought large fields electricity, tractors, and planting of single crops were in themselves scientific.

The results were failures and, especially in the case of the Soviet Union, enormous suffering.  Scott said the reason for the failures was the failure of the planners to be truly scientific—that is, to modify their theories in the light of facts.

He said poor farmers in Africa and Latin America are scientific in the true sense.  They have detailed knowledge of different crops, and different varieties of seeds, and are continually making minor modifications to see if they can improve.  It is a mistake to call their practices “traditional,” Scott said.  Third World farmers are quick to adopt new crops and technologies when they see a benefit.

The unscientific ones were the advisers who thought that the agricultural practices of wheat farmers in Kansas could be applied to different crops in different climes with no reality check.

The results of High Modernism were failures in terms of their avowed goals, but in one respect they were successes.  They succeeded in bringing their subjects under closer control of the state.  Stalin may have ruined Russian agricultural productivity, but he gained control of Russia’s food supply.  From the standpoint of a tyrant, the tradeoff may have been worth it.

If I wanted to pick a current example of High Modernism, I would cite the current educational “reform” drive.  The Gates Foundation is like the Soviet agricultural planners, and public school teachers are like the Russian villagers being forced into collectives.  I’m exaggerating, but I think the comparison is valid.  The result is unlikely to be improved teaching, but it is very likely to tighter control of what teachers do in the classroom.

Scott took pains to point out he is by no means opposed to scientific research, central planning or social reform, provided the planners (1) take small steps, (2) take no irreversible steps, (3) are prepared for surprises and (4) allow for human ingenuity that goes beyond the plan.  This may seem like a weak ending for a big, ambitious book, but since the point of the book is the danger of detailed blueprints, it would be contradictory to expect Scott to produce a detailed blueprint.


If you want to read more and don’t have time to read the full book, I recommend these reviews, each of which looks at Scott’s book from a different angle.  Also click on Nature and Space to read the first chapter.

The Best-Laid Plans by John Gray in the New York Times.

A Big Little Idea Called Legibility by Venkatash Rao on his ribbonfarm web log.  If you have time to read only one review, I recommend you read this one.

Forests, Trees and Intellectual Roots by economist Bradford DeLong.  He pointed out how Scott’s ideas derive from Friederich Hayek and other economists of the Austrian school.  I think this is accurate, but not necessarily a criticism of Scott.

I respect Hayek for his insights that information is widely distributed in society, that the justification for the free market is as a means to coordinate information, and that people are capable of managing their own affairs without having to be micro-managed by experts.  I also respect his stress on the need for the rule of law, although he did not live up to his own ideal.

Hayek’s limitation, which Scott does not share, was his insistence that the free market was the only thing needful.  Hayek failed to understand the importance of democracy, civil liberties, civil society and public opinion, which led him into support for the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile.

Update 3/16/2017.  Also check out Book Review: Seeing LIke a State by Scott Alexander on Slate Star Codex.   I would now say that if you have time to read only once review, read this one.

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