Seeing Like A State

Seeing Like A State by James C. Scott explores the mishaps of statebuilding, and more precise ‘high modernism’. It takes multiple deep dives into examples with a focus on forestry, agriculture, city building, and social organisation. These include Tanzanian villages, Russia under Lenin, and Revolutionary France.

My main takeaway from the book is that overconfidence and bad incentives, lead to bad outcomes for the population. Most (if not all) of the high modernist ideas were done with the best intentions. Yet overconfidence in ‘science’, simplification, and the knowledge of experts led to disastrous results.

What is almost always overlooked is the knowledge of the population. Where an economic planner sees chaos (e.g. curvy streets, multiple crops growing in one plot), the locals see an optimal solution to a local problem.

In the end, Scott concludes that the ideas of high modernism are a mixed bag. They have often replaced other systems that were at least as bad as theirs (e.g. hierarchy in the family, child labour, no formal education). Yet they also led to huge famines (China, central Africa), displacement and separation of families, and lost knowledge for generations.

What he also highlights is the ingenuity of the local population. This is the only thing that got many through the bad schemes that were invented from top-down.

The book is long, but the later chapters really do bring together the ideas from earlier. For anyone interested in sociology, antropology, or just how states/governments think, go have a read.

Some more notes (see other reviews here):

  • States simplify, abstract away things (like a map does), but sometimes/always you miss and forget things that should be on the map/seen in the landscape itself
  • The maps themselves also form the environment. This example/mental model was given at the forestry chapter, but also applies to villages in Tanzania where sometimes even a house would be moved 10 metres to be in line with the map
  • One thing high modernism misses is that there isn’t one(!) goal that people want to achieve. They are complex, many goals are implicit, and interpersonal relationship make things infinitely more complex
  • Jacobs is mentioned as a thinker who did see (better) how people worked together and that social trust and networks (which you can’t really see on a map) are very important
  • This is contrasted against La Bourzier who did top-down planning and was one of the thinkers behind Brazilia (capital of Brazil, and you have to read the chapter to really get a feel for how weird it all went down)
  • One thing that the state wants is to have legibility, to be able to ‘read’ what is happening in the country. The French wanted this 200 years ago, and still today we want this (e.g. with last names, with cadastral maps)
  • So some things that might be valuable, but not legible, can get lost. One thing that might be interesting is how new technology will let us better read the ‘in-legible’ things and get value from them. One area I think people are working on is to get the implicit knowledge (networks) within organisations working better
  • Another concept mentioned is ‘metis’ (taken from Aristotle). Here Scott mentions (and dedicates a chapter to it) how implicit knowledge is very valuable in many situations. This goes from the people who ride boats into a harbour to the locals who know how to save a tree from an ant attack
  • Capitalism (and high modernism) wants efficiency and control. If you have efficiency without control, you still can’t get taxes and the like. This works/worked very well in a factory (Ford), or with weaving wool. But in many other cases, you still need much local knowledge
  • Another interesting example is the right to work ‘strikes’. In the example used, Parisian taxi drivers followed the rules to the letter, thus grinding all traffic to a halt in Paris (ala, they were breaking many rules to do things more efficiently and arguably better)
  • “Forming policy and reducing it to a statistic which does not accurately represent the whole. States have had an interest in making society ‘legible’ – that is, making complex patterns easily understood. The results of these plans are chaotic, even with the best of intentions.”
  • “Now all of these schemes have a broad philosophical outlook in common, which Scott calls ‘High modernism’ – the belief that technology and bureaucratic planning could solve problems, and that desk planners know how to best organize human society. A design which looks simple and pleasing on paper leads to unforeseen side effects.”
  • “Scott emphasizes the fact that some form of genuine representation must take place in the ordering of society, so that those with practical experience will have a say in how the way society is ordered. A theory can be very pretty, but it must be challenged by questions, facts, and practice.”

Also see this review of Against The Grain (a prequel of sorts)