Some Thoughts on “Seeing Like a State”

James C. Scott, the Yale political scientist, and the author of some of the best books on the history of states, has a new book coming out, entitled Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (here). Scott’s latest book (which is excellent) encouraged me to reflect on Seeing Like a State — his celebrated critique of high-modernism in state planning, architecture, and economic development, a book I frequently recommend to students and friends.

Seeing Like the State, like Scott’s other work, is widely admired by many libertarians and classical liberals (see here, and here). This is unsurprising. It documents the often unseen costs of ambitious state planning. Scott describes how states seek to make the social world legible and how the quest for legibility leads to costly and often disastrous interventions in society. Across numerous examples taken from history, the top-down knowledge of state planners is contrasted to the metis — or tacit knowledge — of local communities.

Scott’s argument is highly Hayekian (as Brad Delong observed). Scott, however is ambivalent about this connection; he is no a libertarian or classical liberal himself and this is evident in his relatively skepticism towards the benefits of markets. For example, in this insightful Cato Unbound Symposium, Scott makes it clear that he sees strong parallels between the flaws of seeing like a state and the tendency of capitalism to produce homogenization:

“large-scale capitalism is just as much an agency of homogenization, uniformity, grids, and heroic simplification as the state, with the difference that, for capitalists, simplification must pay. The profit motive compels a level of simplification and tunnel vision that, if anything, is more heroic that the early scientific forest of Germany. In this respect, the conclusions I draw from the failures of modern social engineering are as applicable to market-driven standardization as they are to bureaucratic homogeneity.”

Clearly, there is something to this critique: like the High Modernist architecture of Le Corbusier that Scott criticizes so aptly, the hurly burly churn of capitalist markets produces results that are often aesthetically unappealing. But as Scott does not develop the analogy further, one is left highly unsatisfied. Scott is a deep and serious scholar of politics, but here, at least, he gives the impression of only thinking about markets and commerce at a superficial level. In the above passage, he notes that markets are in fact different than government because simplification must pay. To an economist this would suggest a check on the ambitions of capitalists to homogenize society against the wishes of consumers. But Scott thinks it merely exacerbates this instinct and concludes with the claim that his insights are as applicable to the private sector as to the domain of politics.

It is hard to avoid the impression that Scott underrates the adaptability and flexibility of markets. Yes, markets can result in homogeneity; but the market process is also a driver of creative experimentation and innovation. Too much bland standardization, and markets provide incentives for entrepreneurs to create products that appear idiosyncratic or unusual. The market as a process can certainly appear ruthless and much that is valuable can be lost as a result in the hurly burly of the market place. But everyday experience provides pretty convincing evidence that markets tend to be more capable of self-correction than are state planners and bureaucrats.

So much for Scott’s skepticism of markets. But once we recognize that Scott undervalues the power of markets, one is obliged to wonder whether his critique of the state faces a similar problem?

This is the point Paul Seabright made in his extremely insight review of Seeing Like a State in the London Review of Books. Seabright notes that Scott risks proving too much. By using similar language to describe both the catastrophic collectivization policies pursued by the Soviet Union and Tanzania, and the problems faced by scientific forestry and agriculture in nineteenth century Europe, he elides disastrous failures with policies that were, by and large successful, despite having unintended consequences. This elision is potentially misleading because, as Seabright notes:

“That scientific agriculture has faced unforeseen problems is undeniable, as is the fact that some of these problems (the environmental ones, for instance) are serious. But the achievements of scientific agriculture to be set against them are remarkable. The proportion of the world’s population in grinding poverty is almost certainly lower than it has ever been, though in absolute numbers it is still unacceptably high. Where there have been important areas of systematic failure, such as in sub-Saharan Africa, these owe more to social and institutional disasters that have hurt all farmers alike than to the science of agriculture itself. To equate the problems of scientific agriculture with those of Soviet collectivisation is like saying Stalin and Delia Smith have both had problems with egg dishes.”

I have been thinking about Scott’s ideas on the state and Seabright’s critique in the context of European state building c. 1500–180, a topic that I’ve recently been working on (here).

On the one hand, Scott’s perspective has considerable merit. The creation of stronger states in early modern Europe was a costly, violent, and, at times, almost Sisyphean task. Lauro Martines’s book, Furies: War in Europe 1450–1700, documents in vivid and sometimes grotesque details, the brutalities involved in making war in Early Modern Europe: taxes extracted at sword and pike point from resisting peasants; soldiers press-ganged into armies which were walking columns of dysentery, typhus, and other diseases; the routine rapes, burnings, and torture; and all to what end? So that France could acquire Loraine, England colonize Ireland, and the Habsburg emperor discipline Dutch or German rebels? A brief examination of the costs of European states-building on the ground suggests that Scott’s extreme skepticism of the state seems entirely justified, perhaps even understated.

On the other hand, however, countless scholars have argued that this cauldron of war and violence led to the rise of modern states after 1800 — states that were recognizably more liberal and less brutal than were their predecessors. If these arguments have merit (and I think they do) then Scott’s wholehearted skepticism of the state’s project runs into precisely the problem highlighted by Seabright. The destructiveness of the state in all its manifestations has to be set against the possible benefits that are associated with at least some forms of political order (and to be fair to Scott he does wrestle with this issue in his book on anarchism).

I won’t provide a clear resolution to this debate here. Instead, I’ll conclude with Don Boudeaux’s astute comment from the Cato Unbound Symposium:

For example, libertarians (of which I am one) are quick to applaud any obstacles to the state’s ability to oversee and govern the populace . . . [But] [w]ith the pre-modern state hamstrung by a lack of knowledge of the peoples and regions under its domain, why didn’t individual freedom reign and capitalism burst forth before the modern state emerged with its improved abilities to monitor and control its subjects . . . Even the most ardent libertarian must keep an open mind on this matter. Perhaps the emergence of the modern state did, in fact, play a positive role in paving the way for the capitalist wealth explosion that began in 18th-century Europe. Nation-states’ standardization of language, weights, and measurements, information on ownership of real property, and knowledge about the destination of roads might not have been necessary to help spark the Industrial Revolution; that is, it might have been possible for such standardization to emerge through purely private actions (in much the same way that private railroads created “standard time” zones in Canada and the United States). But it surely seems to be untrue that a state growing in both scope and power necessarily diminishes the prospects for entrepreneurial capitalism to take hold and bloom.

In later essays, I hope to tackle other (classical liberal) criticisms of the modern literature on state development and state capacity.