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October 21, 2007


Ada Tso

James Scott’s “Seeing Like A State” has an interesting take on the development of a centralized state, and is extremely relevant. The 20th century bore witness to an incredible number of ambitious plans, from the collectivization of the Soviet Union to Le Corbusier’s urban planning ideas to Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Many (most?) of these plans were ultimately unsuccessful, and came at the cost of enormous suffering by its citizens.
While I appreciate Scott’s points and very much believe that more policymakers should heed his concerns, my concern is that endless flexibility will result in nothing ever getting done. For some purposes, occasional generalization and extrapolation is important so that things can be categorized and so that laws can be made. What I want to know is how Scott thinks that societies should be structured, and he gives a hint in the very last paragraph of his book: “One could say that democracy itself is based on the assumption that the metis of its citizenry should, in mediated form, continually modify the laws and policies of the land.” Democracy does stand in contrast to the sort of “imperialism of ‘high-modernist, planned social order” that Scott refers to in the beginning of the book; however, democracy still imposes rules on people who don’t necessarily agree with them and there remains the kind of simplification that Scott argues against. This is manifestly obvious in the United States, where many don’t get their say, where many people’s talents, desires, values, and wants are neglected or dismissed.

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