On Seeing Like A State

A tweet by @sclopit (Stefano Bertolo), exclaiming that

in other news, I recently spent a couple of days with a large group of budding policy makers who had never heard of http://t.co/vX6k4IxxNE
06/09/2015 07:16

sent me to my bookshelf to have a look through [amazon_link id=”0300078153″ target=”_blank” ]Seeing Like A State[/amazon_link] by James Scott again. The subtitle describes at one level the book’s subject: “How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.” It looks in some detail at a range of idealistic state schemes, from the ujamaa villages in Nyerere’s Tanzania and the city planning of Le Corbusier quasi-implemented in Brasilia – as opposed to the organic unplanned living cities celebrated by [amazon_link id=”067974195X” target=”_blank” ]Jane Jacobs[/amazon_link] – to Soviet collectivization.

[amazon_image id=”0300078153″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (The Institution for Social and Policy Studies)[/amazon_image]

The book then draws together its themes from analysing each specific kind of failure, each an example of the failure of ‘high modernism’ in its over-abstraction from detailed contextual understanding. By high modernism, he means: “A strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self confidence in 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 scientific understanding of natural laws.” Step forward the least attractive, most hubristic version of 20th century economics.

“We have repeatedly observed the natual and social failures of thin, formulaic simplifications imposed through the agency of state power,” Scott writes. To blame: “utilitarian commercial and fiscal logic.” Large-scale social processes are too complicated to plan for. Scott celebrates practical, local knowledge, improvisation.

He does not, however, advocate abandoning the idealism that drove such projects, or leaving everything to “the market”. His advice is summed up in four rules of thumb:

Take small steps

Favour reversibility

Plan on surprises

Rely on human inventiveness

Above all, policymaker, do not think that you are all-knowing while your subjects are know-nothings. Don’t plan for abstract citizens, all uniform. Remember that context is everything.

Since [amazon_link id=”0300078153″ target=”_blank” ]Seeing Like A State[/amazon_link] was published in 1998 there have been a number of other reminders of the messy complexity of reality. One good recent one was Colander and Kupers in [amazon_link id=”B010CLT0OI” target=”_blank” ]Complexity and The Art of Public Policy[/amazon_link]. And of  course the theme is an old on, dating at least to Hayek’s 1945 AER paper The Use of Knowledge in Society, its theme brilliantly dramatized in Francis Spufford’s [amazon_link id=”B00B9ZDDCC” target=”_blank” ]Red Plenty[/amazon_link].

But if you’ve never had chance to read [amazon_link id=”0300078153″ target=”_blank” ]Seeing Like A State[/amazon_link], I, like Stefano, think it is an essential book.

PS Speaking of economics in this context, I am itching to write my review of Dani Rodrik’s [amazon_link id=”0393246418″ target=”_blank” ]Economics Rules[/amazon_link], on 21st century economics, and see people have started to comment on it. But the letter with the proof says not before 13 October so I’ll hold out at least a little longer.

7 thoughts on “On Seeing Like A State

  1. Hirschman is relevant too, for instance his Development Projects Observed and “Underdevelopment, obstacles to the perception of change, and leadership,” and he stroke me as more optimistic, which given his “bias for hope” seems natural.

  2. This sounds like Karl Popper’s principle of “piecemeal social engineering”, although Popper’s attack on the grand schemes came from a philosophical and political direction than from economics. But one wonders how much difference that really makes.

    • If I ever read the Popper it was so long ago I can’t remember. But from the sound of it, the ‘piecemeal’ bit is the same but Scott is more in the organic development/complexity camp than a social engineering approach at all.

  3. Your comment about waiting to review Economics Rules reminds me to ask what happened to your review of Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism? You mentioned you were reviewing it elsewhere – is that now available somewhere?

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