James Scott

Brad De Long delong at econ.Berkeley.EDU
Mon Apr 24 13:51:12 PDT 2000

>the first part of seeing like a state is excellent. then he goes on to rather
>conventional bashing of states from a relatively neo-conservative perspective.

I agree that the first part is wonderful and excellent. I have more mixed feelings about the second part than Michael does. I think that Scott is finding himself pushed toward not a neoconservative but an Austrian-Burkean position, and is trying as hard as his conscious mind can to resist it...

_Seeing Like a State_ begins with a ride through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German forestry. In Germany, "scientific" forestry led to the planting and harvesting of large monocrop forests of Norway spruce and Scotch pine. And for the first century or so the pockets of forest-owners bulged as more and more valuable trees were harvested from the increasingly-ordered and managed forests.

But the foresters did not understand the ecological web that they were trying to manage: Clearing of underbrush to make it easier for lumberjacks to move about in the forest "greatly reduced the diversity of insect, mammal, and bird populations" (p. 20); the absence of animals and the absence of rotting wood on the forest floor greatly reduced the replenishment of the soil with nutrients. In places where all the trees are mature, of the same age and of the same species, storms can wreak catastrophe as trees knock each other over like bowling pins. Pests and parasites that attack a particular species find a bonanza and grow to epidemic proportions when they find a monocrop forest. The result was what Germans call Waldsterben--the death of the forest, as it becomes both a pale shadow of its previous ecological richness and an inefficient source of timber for human use.

Why does Scott begin with such a tale of pseudo-scientific hubris in Germany before 1900? After all, he could have looked across the North Sea at England a century or so before, where the systematic experimentation and analysis of the agricultural revolution had led to a quite sophisticated understanding of what patterns of crop rotation, nutrient addition, and farm diversity could produce maximum sustainable and maximum economic yield. Why not tell a story about how human communities successfully managed a sustainable agriculture, rather than one about how human communities unsuccessfully created an unsustainable forestry?

Scott opens with his tale of German foresters because he argues that this type of interaction--people in rooms lined with green silk lay out complicated plans, which are then approved by the politically powerful, implemented with no regard for local conditions or local knowledge, and wind up as disasters--is typical of how states have dealt with problems and people in the twentieth century. When states--bureaucrats in offices in the capital--try to assess what is going on, they use maps: maps of territory, often with the demarcations between plots or regions made to be straight lines that meet at right angles, whether or not such lines of demarcation make any sense for those who live on the ground; maps of people--the lists of names and relationships that allow the state to track those from whom it will claim "obligations"--maps of laws, that fit human relationships of gift, exchange, and indebtedness that have both economic and emotional facets into a few well-defined categories of right and wrong. But the map is never the territory. Scott reports that the first railroad from Paris to Strasbourg ran straight east from Paris across the plateau of Brie, far from the populated Marne, because the bureaucrat Victor Legrand drew the line so. The consequence was that the railroad was ruinously expensive because Victor Legrand forgot that to be useful a railroad has to carry goods and passengers from where they are to where they or their owners want them to go--not look like a pretty straight line on a map back in Paris (p. 76). By page 87 the reader is well-prepared to agree with Scott that the map is never the territory, and that what the state "sees" is only a very small slice of reality.

However, these discussions of forests and maps are just the warm-up. Scott's main argument begins on page 87 as he lets twentieth-century states have it with both barrels. Scott then mounts a vicious, powerful, and effective fangs-bared critique of what he calls "high modernism": the belief that the bureaucratic planner with a map--whether Le Corbusier designing a city, Vladimir Lenin designing a planned economy after what he thought he knew of the German war economy, or Julius Nyerere "villagizing" the people of Tanzania--knows best, and can move humans and their lives around the territory as if on a chessboard, and so create utopia. Scott sees the "idea of a root-and-branch, rational engineering of entire social orders in creating realizable utopias" as a twentieth-century idea that has gone far to making this century a dystopia.

Well before the middle of the book this non-Austrian liberal-Keynesian economist was--any economist would be--struck by a strong sense of deja vu. Scott's declarations of the importance of the detailed practical knowledge possessed by the person-on-the-spot--of how such knowledge cannot be transmitted up any hierarchy to those-in-charge in a way to do any good--of how the locus of decision-making must remain with those who have the craft to understand the situation--of how any system that functions at all must create and maintain a space in which there is sufficient flexibility for craftsmen to exercise their local, pratical knowledge (even if the hierarchs of the system pretend not to notice this flexibility)--all of these will strike any economist as very, very familiar.

All of these seem familiar to economists because they are the points made by Ludwig von Mises (1920) and Friedrich Hayek (1937) and the other Austrian economists in their pre-World War II debate with socialists over the possibility of central planning.

Hayek's adversaries--Oskar Lange and company--argued that a market system had to be inferior to a centrally-planned system: at the very least, a centrally-planned economy could set up internal decision-making procedures that would mimic the market, and the central planners could also adjust things to increase social welfare and account for external effects in a way that a market system could never do.

Hayek, in response, argued that the functionaries of a central-planning board could never succeed, because they could never create both the incentives and the flexibility for the people-on-the-spot to use the immense amount of knowledge about the actual situation that only people-on-the-spot can know. The enormous amount of dispersed knowledge that individual producers know and act on in a market economy can never be mobilized by a central planner. That a central planner could--that he or she could ever "possess a complete inventory of the amounts and qualities of all the different materials and instruments of production" available to the manager of a single plant--is "a somewhat comic fiction."

Yet Scott does not see himself as any kind of neoconservative or Austrian. He mounts a preemptive strike against Hayek in his introduction: "Put bluntly, my bill of particulars against [the high-modernist centrally-planning social-engineering] state is by no means a case for politically unfettered market coordination as urged by Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman. As we shall see, the conclusions that can be drawn from the failures of modern projects of social engineering are as applicable to market-driven standardization as they are to bureaucratic homogeneity" Scott cannot cite Edmund Burke in Seeing Like a State--and much of Scott's book consists of praise for the wisdom embodied in community practices in a Burkean vein--except as an "apologist... for... power, privilege, and property." And Scott cannot embrace Friedrich Hayek out of the fear that it will turn his book into a "case for politically-unfettered market coordination." Instead, he believes that his argument is as much a critique of "market-driven standardization" as of "bureaucratic homogeneity."

Scott has a long critique of agricultural extension services and agricultural development programs in the third world, and the scorn their "experts" had for the practical knowledge of the rural peasant (pp. 270-306). Woven into the critique of agricultural development programs are asides about the destructiveness of DDT, the effect of sterile hybrid seeds in diminishing the autonomy of the farmer, the vulnerability of American monoculture farms to pests and epidemics, and the pre-packaged relatively-tasteless--but overwhelmingly cheap--rubber tomatoes developed to be machine-sprayed and machine-picked.

However, people bought (and buy) rubber tomatoes because they are cheap--because relatively little social labor is required to produce them. Overall we have the "unparalleled agricultural productivity" of the industrial West, in which the U.S. is a major exporter of food products even though its economy now employs fewer farmers and farm laborers than gardeners and groundskeepers.

The argument that market-driven processes are as harmful to human freedom as state-led high modernism appears suddenly at the end of a discussion of the importance of practical, local knowledge and expertise. Scott calls this practical, local knowledge "metis," taking the word from the skill traditionally attributed to Odysseus. Takes it to be a counterweight to the type of theoretical or technical knowledge held by bureaucrats, scientists, and others (pp. 309-341). Most such practical knowledge cannot be easily summarized and simple rules, and much of it remains implicit: the devil is in the details. In the middle of this discussion of "metis" we suddenly read that: "The destruction of metis and its replacement by standardized formulas legible only from the center is virtually inscribed in the activities of both the state and large-scale bureaucratic capitalism" (p. 335).

And when the chips are down, James Scott wants 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). --

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- "Now 'in the long run' this [way of summarizing the quantity theory of money] is probably true.... But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. **In the long run** we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again."

--J.M. Keynes -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- J. Bradford De Long; Professor of Economics, U.C. Berkeley; Co-Editor, Journal of Economic Perspectives. Dept. of Economics, U.C. Berkeley, #3880 Berkeley, CA 94720-3880 (510) 643-4027; (925) 283-2709 phones (510) 642-6615; (925) 283-3897 faxes http://econ161.berkeley.edu/ <delong at econ.berkeley.edu>

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