December 2005
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Day December 4, 2005

Book #57: James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State

James C. Scott’s “Seeing Like a State : How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (The Institution for Social and Policy St)” was a book I’d been meaning to read ever since first encountering the reference in Jacob T. Levy’s paper, Liberalism’s Divide After Socialism, And Before. Scott’s mission is to examine the processes by which “certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed,” from large-scale interventions in forestry and agriculture to forced population resettlement in Africa and the early Soviet Union. His point, broadly speaking, is that large-scale plans to “remake” societies, of the type associated with authoritarian applications of “high modernist” thinking, tend to oversimplify ecological, economic, and social relationships and thus frequently lead to disaster. In fact, disaster becomes nearly certain when authoritarianism and/or previous erosion of civil society give governments the ability to treat social structures almost as “blank slates.”

Scott is careful not to restrict his argument only to centralized, bureaucratic, or authoritarian schemes for societal “improvement.” Clearly, the same oversimplifications can exist — and in fact, are rampant — within market economies. As the “scale and scope” (to use Chandler’s apt phrase) of corporate activity grows, oversimplification of local conditions, needs, and idiosyncrasies are inevitable and essential for manageability (what Scott refers to as making complexity “legible”). When this occurs, centralized planning can lead to social, economic, and ecological failures, of the kind we see around us.

His solution is to recover “metis” — a Greek term referring to local knowledge and learned skill, and balance our globalizing, centralizing, rationalizing impulse with a recognition of the importance of local adaptation, diversity, and fluidity. In this, Scott reveals himself a follower of Jane Jacobs’s style of urban planning, rather than Corbusier, and if asked I’m sure he would resonate strongly with Wendell Berry on agriculture. Naturally, I’m not doing Scott’s argument justice, but the balance between the “rationalizing” impulse of Enlightenment thought and sympathy with diversity, local knowledge, local decisionmaking is a balance we have yet to properly work out — in our economics, in our ecology, in our politics. As Levy notes in the aforementioned paper, this balance is the tension at the core of early versions of liberalism, not our current arguments over welfare versus market versions of liberal political economy. Such a balance is also at the core of the endless tension in American constitutional history between nationalism and meaningful federalism, local control versus national uniformity. And in evolutionary theory, diversity and local adaptation are frequent and natural outcomes of selective processes. Scott’s book stimulated much thinking on the interconnections between all of these areas for me, and a book which can stimulate so many diverse connections deserves high praise.