Discussion of Scott’s Seeing Like a State

seeing like a state coverIn the late 1990s James Scott wrote a very interesting book Seeing Like a State: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed about the failure of bureaucratic planning to accomodate local-tacit knowledge that doesn’t easily fit within bureaucratic systems.

The failure of bureaucratic management to cope with social-ecological diversity is a strong theme in studies of common property and human ecology. I read the book from this perspective informed Holling’s pathology of natural resource management, and found much in the book that was congruent with the pathology. From descriptions of scientific forestry in Germany that simplified the forest to an extent that foresters had to encourage local school children to raise bees for pollination. Other have read the book for different perspectives, and their responses are interesting. Below I quote from the comments of an economist and political scientist who noticed different parts of the book.

Economist Brad DeLong criticizes the book’s lack of engangement with economic thought on the collective problem solving ability of individuals. He writes:

The key fault of what Scott calls “high modernism” is its belief that details don’t matter–that planners decree from on high, people obey, and utopia results. Note that Scott’s conclusion is not just that attempts at high-modernist centrally-planned social-engineering have failed. It is–as von Mises argued 70 years ago–they are always overwhelmingly likely to fail. As Scott puts it:

… [the] larger point [is that]… [i]n each case, the necessarily thin, schematic model of social organization and production animating the planning was inadequate as a set of instructions for creating a successful social order. By themselves, the simplified rules can never generate a functioning community, city, or economy. Formal order, to be more explicit, is always and to some degree parasitic on informal processes, which the formal scheme does not recognize, without which it could not exist, and which it alone cannot create or maintain (p. 310).

Yet even as he makes his central points, Scott appears unable to make contact with his intellectual roots–thus he is unable to draw on pieces of the Austrian argument as it has been developed over the past seventy years. Just as seeing like a state means that you cannot see the local details of what is going on, so seeing like James Scott seems to me that you cannot see your intellectual predecessors.

That the conclusion is so strong where the evidence is so weak is, I think, evidence of profound subconscious anxiety: subconscious fear that recognizing that one’s book is in the tradition of the Austrian critique of the twentieth century state will commit one to becoming a right-wing inequality-loving Thatcher-worshiping libertarian (even though there are intermediate positions: you can endorse the Austrian critique of central planning without rejecting the mixed economy and the social insurance state).

And when the chips are down, this recognition is something James Scott cannot do. At some level he wishes–no matter what his reason tells him–to take his stand on the side of the barricades with the revolutionaries and their tools to build utopia. He ends the penultimate chapter of his book with what can only be called a political pledge-of-allegiance:

Revolutionaries have had every reason to despise the feudal, poverty-stricken, inegalitarian past that they hoped to banish forever, and sometimes they have also had a reason to suspect that immediate democracy would simply bring back the old order. Postindependence leaders in the nonindustrial world (occasionally revolutionary leaders themselves) could not be faulted for hating their past of colonial domination and economic stagnation, nor could they be faulted for wasting no time or democratic sentimentality on creating a people that they could be proud of (p. 341).

But then comes the chapter’s final sentence: “Understanding the history and logic of their commitment to high-modernist goals, however, does not permit us to overlook the enormous damage that their convictions entailed when combined with authoritarian state power” (p. 341).

Political Scientist Henry Farrell responds by arguing that “rational planning” that ignores local conditions is not just a problem of state planning:

What Scott argues, as I understand it is as follows. First – that processes of rationalization lead to the destruction of metis, or local knowledge if you would prefer, and the prioritization of codifiable, quantifiable, epistemic knowledge. Second, that this process involves obvious and (sometimes quite important) trade-offs, but may often be worth it – e.g. there is no point in idealizing serf-like conditions that preserve local knowledge at the expense of human freedom. Third, that the real problem is when the creation of epistemic knowledge is combined with high modernist attempts to engage in social engineering. This arrives at similar conclusions to Hayek etc about how terrible collectivization processes are, but from different premises. Specifically, what Hayek etc would see as the result of state planning, Scott sees as the result of broader forms of rationalization (hence, perhaps, the linkages to Foucault that Brad worries about) when they coincide with a certain kind of state hubris (the hubris doesn’t necessarily follow from the creation of codifiable knowledge).

Thus, I think there is a argument against the Hayekians which is not very far from the surface of Seeing Like a State and which can be drawn out quite easily. First – Scott makes it clear that the processes of market development and of state imposition of standards goes hand in hand. Brad talks about how the very first example that Scott draws on – German scientific forestry in the nineteenth century – is intended to show the failures of state planning. But as Scott makes clear, the relevant failures are driven as much by the market as by the state – Scott writes about how the “utilitarian state could not see the real, existing forest for the (commercial trees)” and about how the forest as a habitat disappears and is replaced by the forest as an economic resource to be managed efficiently and profitably. Here, fiscal and commercial logics coincide; they are both resolutely fixed on the bottom line.

This is an important sub-theme of the book, and indeed of our understanding of how states and markets have developed hand-in-hand. Sometimes, the state has sought to impose its view for reasons of its own interest and survival (whether this be the promotion of ‘public order,’ the increase of fiscal revenues or whatever), sometimes at the behest of market actors who are interested in standardization, and sometimes for rationales that blur these two together.

This leads on to the second point – that a lot of what Scott argues is correct. His claim, as I read it is less about the specific problems of state-created institutions, than the ways in which a large variety of abstracting institutions or standards miss out on, and perhaps undermine important forms of local knowledge. As I understand him, any standards sufficient for impersonal exchange are likely to abstract away the actual relationships that people have with their environment. Here, Scott is less a closet-Hayekian than a more-or-less-overt Polanyian, who develops some of Polanyi’s arguments (especially his claims about the institutional consequences of long distance trade, and the economy as an instituted process) to make them sharper and more interesting.

Another, more homely example is food. Brad criticizes Scott’s discussion of the much-cited tasteless tomato arguing that it are an example of market success rather than failure – people bought tasteless tomatoes because they were cheap. This seems to me to have a bit of a flavor of a revealed preferences argument, and also to miss the point. I lived in Florence for three years, a city which has cheap and delicious tomatoes, despite being some distance from the parts of Italy where tomatoes are grown. While I can’t prove it, I strongly suspect that the deliciousness of the tomatoes had a lot to do with informal relationships between the small shops where you bought the tomatoes, the small companies that delivered them, and the small farms from where they were bought. Certainly, this would be consonant with the research that I and many others have done on the Italian political economy and how it works. Italy protects small businesses and local communities in a lot of ways. This means that it misses out badly on certain economies of scale. It also means that certain kinds of high quality production are possible in Italy that are difficult or impossible to replicate elsewhere – a myriad of small firms cooperating to produce final goods through purely informal means. Hence the success, for example, of Italian sunglasses, shoes, and (the rather unglamorous topic of my own research) packaging machinery. All of these build on forms of informal knowledge that would likely be damaged in a more standard market economy, where collaboration happened (to the extent that it did), within the hierarchy of the firm, or through arms-length contracts.

Thus, there are trade-offs. Italian firms in small-firm districts are excellent at gradual innovation and refinement of knowledge – in part because of their reliance on metis. They are not so good at producing profound, industry-changing forms of innovation. They also tend to stick closer to home than their equivalents in other countries (somewhat ironically, they replicate the logic of Avner Greif’s mediaeval Maghribi merchants far more than the behaviour of his Genoese traders).

…This allows me to come back to the roots of my disagreement with Brad. Brad is a fan of markets, and believes that they contribute in very important ways to human freedom. I agree with him on this. But I think that Brad sometimes underemphasizes the real trade-offs that markets may involve, and overstates his criticisms of people who are concerned with these trade-offs. Sometimes, perhaps often, these trade-offs are relatively slight – as Brad says, many forms of redundant local knowledge can be discarded without compunction. Sometimes, these trade-offs are real, but still worthwhile – while we should acknowledge the costs of markets, we should acknowledge that the benefits of introducing them are higher. And sometimes they are not worth paying – there are areas of social life where marketization has more downsides than advantages.

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