Monday, July 03, 2017

Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott

I found a lot to like in James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State. It presents a way of thinking about the consequences of governments' interventions that makes a large category of unintended side effects appear coherent. Once you see this consistency, you can make predictions about other interventions and the ways they will turn out without needing to ascribe motivation to the planners behind them. In order to achieve their goals, bureaucrats and autocrats have to make the population they intend to help more surveyable, visible, and regular. That very act, independent of how much the rest of the change might be done with the best interests of the people in mind, reduces the relevance of the local knowledge and expertise that they have built up over time, making them more dependent on government, and less able to fill in the gaps in the ways that lead to smoothly functioning societies.

Scott describes several grand schemes, mostly done to help various populations, though often in ignorance of the ways of the people living in the affected area. He discusses state-sponsored forestry, Corbusier's city planning, government-sponsored (and private) experiments in industrial agriculture, China's Great Leap Forward, resettlements in Tanzania, as well as touching on other examples. In each case he shows how the (necessarily) high level plans of of the top officials were translated into concrete details for the convenience of those implementing the plan, in ignorance of the deleterious consequences for the affected villagers. The end result in each case conformed to the planners' specifications, but left an unlivable environment in which the inhabitants were more dependent on the government, and often much poorer than they started out.

Whether the results of all these grand schemes ended up being helpful is questionable, and is certainly independent of what the original intent was, or how much effort was spent during the planning stage in considering ways to make the outcome closer to what the subjects would have asked for. Since plans and maps are necessarily abstractions from reality, and since the plans must be carried out by intermediaries whose interests are distinct from both the rulers and the people being 'helped', those doing the work will have to have to fill in details about how to get the work done. This will often be done in ignorance of the intent, and more usually without concern for the extended well-being of the future of the community.

As with Jacobs' Death and Life of Great American Cities, the point isn't to move towards a conclusion on how to do a better job of redesigning a society, so much as of having skepticism that it's possible to achieve humane objectives by trying. In most cases, hubris would lead to addressing problems by allowing people to adjust things in an incremental manner. Otherwise we risk replacing things that seems suboptimal to an outsider with situations that are truly dismal for those left behind. While discussing Soviet collective farms, Scott talks about some attempts by American industrial agricultural firms to do something similar in the midwest. Their grand plans for integrated industrial farms didn't succeed any better, but the difference was that when the outcome became clear, the companies involved backed off and the land reverted to more local, context-sensitive control.

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