Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Seeing like a State

Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed
© 1999 James Scott
464 pages

            Seeing like a State scrutinizes the organizational approach of state governments and other large institutions from the Renaissance era onward. In essence ,James C. Scott demonstrates how reductionist top down attempts at understanding and planning tend to be.  In attempting to render comprehensible complex systems – whether those systems are forests, cities, or national economies – vital information is lost.  Scott argues that the greatest value of aggressive organization is to increase the power and control of the organizer; this is in fact the point of organization in most cases, as with mandating last names. In  other cases, like the creation of forest management, power is achieved more indirectly through the state consolidating and advancing its economic agenda.  In reducing forest farming to one species, however, and planning it rigidly, the rich variety that makes a successful forest thrive is lost. The farm becomes susceptible to vigorous disease; monoculture produces the same results everywhere. The order imposed is accomplished at the cost of life; cities disintegrate when their rich diversity is broken up, rigidly segregated with zoning laws, and lumped together in sprawling clumps. Reviewing dying forests, moribund cities, and nations with collapsed collectivist economies,  Scott argues for decentralized approaches that allow practical, experiential knowledge -- metis -- to predominant, instead of abstract, general knowledge, or techne.  The difference between them can be found in ecologically savvy farming of the kind practiced by Joel Salatin, who instead of imposing a system of agriculture on farms he is invited to steward, fleshes one out on an individual site basis, figuring out which natural cycles can be recreated. This decentralized approach works well with cities and farms, which are complex enough to defy successful planning from on high;  it is hard to imagine a revival of manufacturing lead by artisans instead of industrialists, however.  Scott's case leaves no doubt that organization leads to greater power for the organizers,  but is it avoidable?


  1. This sounds like a fascinating book. As an individualist and opponent of the State's massive central planning schemes I welcome arguments that point out the weaknesses of this approach. I have long admired Friedrich Hayek who made similar arguments based on the State's inability to have the requisite knowledge of the myriad actors within an economy. This knowledge "problem" is also take up by the economist Thomas Sowell.
    There is an interesting discussion of James C. Scott's views at Cato Unbound (

  2. Thanks for posting that link; I was so focused on the agricultural and city planning aspects that I didn't give much attention to Scott's differences with Hayek and his emergent order. That prinicple is one I realized in reading "The Death and Life of Great American Cities", and it's forever altered my thinking.

  3. I expect I'll have something from the opposite end of things in the run up to Christmas. I'm part way through a triplet of Philosophy (my new idea of blitzing a subject in three books read close together) followed by three on economics and three on left-wing politics.


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