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October 21, 2007


Chun Chung Chan

In the introduction, James Scott says “Much of this book can be read as a case against the imperialism of high-modernist, planned social order. I stress the word 'imperialism' here because I am emphatically not making a blanket case against either bureaucratic planning or high-modernist ideology. I am, however, making a case against imperial or hegemonic planning mentality that excludes the necessary role of local knowledge and know-how.” When state is dealing with problem, the intention may be good, however, it can screw up and do harm to the society. Scott thinks that the state ignores the local knowledge and often looks at problem at a high level. There is nothing wrong with having an overall perspective on a board country issue, but implementation has to be relying on local agency, catering to the need of local people. William talks about the Great Leap Forward in China. Such “High Modernism”, administrative order, authoritarian rule and a weak society (the four elements Scott mentioned in the book for the high-modernist) can be clearly drew from the tragic incident. Through collectivism, Mao made the Chinese be able to feed themselves, however, the Great Leap Forward with unrealistic goal, was rather a political propaganda rather than rational policy of government doing good to its people.

Michael Pimentel

While Scott’s argument is ultimately one that champions the decentralization of government and the preservation of metis (a school of thought whose findings “are practical, opportune, and contextual”), its message is not to be mistaken as an exercise in classical liberal discourse. Rather, his writing serves as a scathing criticism of “high modernism,” and the one size fits all policy decisions it entails. As pointed out by Vera, “this book is [not] meant to argue for as little state intervention as possible;” it is meant to point out the flaws of a centralized government actions which creates for humanity, a standardized answer for problems which are never exactly the same. Scott attacks those figures whose “actions, far from being cynical grabs for power and wealth, were animated by genuine desire to improve the human condition” but who “were guilty of hubris, of forgetting that they were mortals and acting as if they were gods.”

And while some on this board have made a connection between Friedman and Scott, I believe that any such connection is tenuous. Certainly Scott, like Friedman, believes in the inadequacies of a centralized government, but he is less concerned with its threat to freedom. Furthermore, Scott seeks to supplant a central government with a government whose outlook is more modest, and whose policies are tailored to the communities they affect. Unlike Friedman, Scott does not lament the current state of our government because he feels that private industry can handle our needs more efficiently, but rather, because he is persuaded by the miraculous healing powers of local knowledge (metis) and is in favor of handling each social hiccup individually, for no two social dilemmas are ever the same. In fact, Scott illustrates, the market as “itself an instituted, formal system of coordination, despite the elbow room that it provides to its participants.” Therefore, it is likely that a society setup in the manner that Friedman supposes (mandates) would run into the same problems we are currently faced with. As Jennifer wrote, “no matter what political affiliation we profess, we should not try to create a perfect solution-but instead be motivated by humbler ideals that look less like religious fervor.”

Lastly, while I do not believe wholeheartedly in what Scott professes, I find his point to be relevant. It is often the case that governments, intending impart a service unto their people will often conjure up extravagant plans which fail to take into consideration differences in location, ideologies and simple logistics (think NCLB); I, like Scott, feel that much of the problems that arise because of such plans can be rectified if we were to put more emphasis on representative governments and were to allow local governments to modify federally mandated laws to better suit their constituents.

Brendan Gluck

The major debate concerning democracy, since the American Revolution, has been representation of local constituents by centralized governments. Scott emphasizes this point wonderfully in his case studies of Tanzania, Russia, and Brazil as well as his description of ‘metis.’ Yet, I believe he falls short in advocating any real solution to this problem, seeing as how his ‘state’ resembles a conglomeration of basically autonomous states rather than a unified one. In a state where each representative brings their own distinctive ‘metis’ to the bargaining table, inevitably nothing will get decided on due to people’s conflicting desires. Seeing as how most of these high-modernistic state planning schemes treat speed as a main priority in the plans execution, Scott’s recommendation seems unrealistic, since incorporating every local viewpoint will undoubtedly slow down the decision-making process. Scott’s state is simply too idealistic to function and if attempted, will lead to the same problem he warns about, mainly choosing one ‘metis’ over the others in creating social policy.

While I do not agree with the outcome Scott eventually obtains, I do agree with the problems he sees in state planning and the need to fix them with ‘metis.’ Yet, Scott’s main argument about the need for representatives to recognize the importance of ‘metis’ will not be adequate enough to solve this dire problem. Instead, the fault arises not as a result of the representative’s lack of knowledge of local customs but of their disregard for these local customs and meek acceptance of the dominant-figures’ plan. This phenomenon was best described by Irving Janis, in his book “Victims of Groupthink,” showing how individuals will override their thoughts and positions, even though they believe them to be correct, and advocate for an offered solution in order to appease the rest of the group. This resolution can undoubtedly lead to the failed attempts at state planning in which Scott is trying to fix and therefore, will only be corrected when representatives learn to stick to their convictions, while also being able to compromise to ensure the development of the most efficient and effective policies.

David Guarino

The true contribution Scott makes to the intellectual compendium that constitutes this class' syllabus is the critique of ABSRACTON as a process, and how abstraction as necessity yields particular and consistent consequences. This applies quite pointedly to social science broadly, which seeks above all else to capture social ontology by maximizing two key criteria in its models: usefulness and simplicity, two different and oft-contradictory ends. Scott's persistent appeal to the "map" metaphor is well-placed in this regard. The old cliche is the inherent trade-off between a map's level of detail and the ease with which it can be purposefully used.

An example: a map of Boston filled with robust historical notation on the influence of Irish and Italian immigration, personal anecdotes from old sailors regarding each Tavern and Publick House contained therein, and a lengthy description of each and every lamp-post and sewer lid within the city limits. This map carries with it two main problems.

First, how long would it take to craft such a finely detailed piece of cartographical art? Second, and more importantly, what if all I want to know is which T-stop to use for a given sports outing? (that would be Kenmore Square around this time of year) The point is that we abstract to such a level that we can capture the RELEVANT details. Which details are relevant depends on the abstraction's purpose.

One of Scott's contributions is his understanding how the impetus to abstract will necessarily push the state to try and make social ontology more easily captured, more 'legible'. Moreover, he shows that the most common impetus since the 19th Century has been a utilitarian, modernizing motivation - improve aggregate welfare by giving primacy to the scientific/technocratic methods that constitute humanity's freeway to utopia.

Many of us study Political Economy because we feel that understanding states and markets is a means of ultimately gaining the tools to improve the quality of life for humanity. Development economics in particular carries this ethical imperative (or burden, depending on one's perspective). The utter inequality of wealth-distribution in the modern world pushes folks at the World Bank (and in Evans and Giannini) to work day and night to 'eradicate global poverty': poverty being defined by a long history of debates among bureaucrats and statisticians about what the relevant metric is. Anyone who has followed the grand schemes of the World Bank throughout its history knows full-well how often scientific-bureaucratic approaches, no matter how well-meaning, fail quite miserably.

'Metis' - the local knowledge that must by necessity be excluded from top-down, aggregate modeling of the world - is one key reason for these failures. Institution-minded folks will argue that property rights may be universally desirable as a first-order condition, but that its second-order means can vary on local contingencies: police-enforcement, established social norms, and familial relations are three distinct ways of achieving property-rights broadly. And in different contexts, the necessary relative reliance on each of these mechanisms will differ. The nature of property rights will also differ by context.

But let's get proactive. I take up Anthony's gauntlet: how can we integrate 'metis' into the project of advancing society, realistically?

First, Scott shows us that we need to discard the idea of 'advancing society' as a rigid universal concept. This is where current thinkers in fields like Urban Planning emphasize PROCESS: we need to allow the affected parties to determine for themselves what 'advancement' means, and this consensus must be the purpose guiding bureaucratic-scientific abstraction. When local knowledge is integrated into the planning process, it will indeed at times makes a snail's pace look fast, but you achieve two broadly desirable outcomes: the integration of on-the-ground, local knowledge into plans and 'buy-in' to the larger project of improving society.

Second, 'metis' may more easily be seized by free individuals voting with their feet and signaling to others - in other words, by markets. Local best-practices will compete and the prevailing strategies will be adopted by those seeking success themselves. Market failure may be ubiquitous, but bureaucratic failure may be more so. The particulars of the problem need to be assessed. When is coordination/coercion better than the losses incurred (either in monetary or human costs) by allowing market forces to operate?

I will argue that the only case for truly top-down, aggregate, bureaucratic change is when society can unanimously declare that the costs of inaction are higher than the costs of failure.

Danielle Mahan

While Scott did catch my attention and provide detailed examples, I feel that he was more articulating common-sense conclusions than putting forth a revolutionizing program. He condemns bureaucratic administration only when it seeks to reorganize society and nature, high-modernist (or over-confident in its policies), totalitarian, and coerces a weakened society (usually suffering from war or economic, political, or natural disaster). Only one of these criteria is need to condemn bureaucratic administration- execution by a totalitarian government. While this doesn’t dismiss his argument as erroneous, its obviousness makes it less relevant.
Maybe a more interesting argument would be to ignore the criterion of a totalitarian government. Still, I would agree that centralized power fails individual people and communities when it attempts to organize entire sectors of the economy on a national level. Without taking into account Scott’s métis, people and communities suffer because their strengths and weakness are being discounted. Scott thinks that through development of liberal democratic political and economic institutions (bureaucracy and civil society), individual strengths and weakness can be taken into account and the dilemma overcome. He does not think that ALL organization and bureaucratization of economics will inevitable turn awry. If institutions allow for flexibility and some regional autonomy, they may succeed in achieving their purpose. He also finds fault in large-scale transformations and advocates small, graduated changes. This resembles Djilas’ critique of Socialism as a massive, totalitarian re-organization of society.
An issue debated in the above posts is that decentralized (state) governments failed in outlawing segregation and discrimination in the South in the early 20th Century. However, this is not the kind of issue that I think Scott was addressing in his work. He believes that centralized power fails in economic organization, not in purely social policy (segregation, discrimination, gay marriage, abortion; whether these latter issues are under government jurisdiction is another matter).
To conclude, I think Friedman would find much to debate with Scott. Scott does not call for a reduction in government intervention. If anything, he proposes greater government action on a local level while reducing federal action. Bureaucracies that tailor programs to specific communities (instead of implementing one-size-fits-all policies) would undoubtedly be more extensive than their predecessors.

pierre mouillon

Scott illustrated many examples of “high modernist schemes” like the collective farms in Russia and Tanzania, in which the governments intend to do well and end up harming its very own population. The governments support that uniformity within its own territorial limits is easier to manage than adapting locally.
An issue that Spain is facing at the moment is to try to bring uniformity in its country. As Kinzie Kramer mentioned with Barcelona, the Basque region also rebels against the government to such an extent that they formed a terrorist organization called “eta.”
This association supports the creation of an independent Basque state and threatens to assassinate the Spanish government politicians. The association was created in the late 1950’s with the goal of protecting the Basque local traditions and language. By causing the development of such organizations, the government is not only responsible for harm its own citizens but also for weakening itself.
I agree with Scott that the governments must recognize “metis;” his word to define local knowledge and customs. For instance, in Business, if we can picture a company being a government with its customers being its citizens, the companies’ goal is to keep its customers satisfied. It is a well-established theory that the way to be successful at doing business is to “think global and act local.” The companies have to acculturate, to meaning they have customize their products and services according to the local language, culture and regulatory climate. The government should be able to do the same and customize its laws, regulations, and language to respect the “metis.”

nadia barhoum

I appreciate Scott’s work and his critical eye toward the relationship between state and citizen. That is, that the state should not assume homogeneity of its citizenry, rather, it should plan according to the spectrum of needs and interests of its many different citizens. Also, Scott does not completely oppose state intervention as did Friedman; Scott calls for a more egalitarian approach to governing that takes into account the local identities and interests of the people.

Oftentimes, states assume that certain policies will benefit the entire population (which is generally not the case) and end up creating structures and systems without planning alternatives in the event of failure. Here, Scott mentions the Tanzanian case study where a socialist policy failed and no recourse had been developed beforehand. Here, maybe the example of the “No Child Left Behind” act could also be looked at as a failed governmental policy that was implemented nationwide yet has had little benefit on the citizens. Quite the contrary, many students and teachers and schools have suffered greatly from this act and moreover, have not been able to fix what damage has been done. Scott looks to improved planning on the part of the government which I think is sorely needed in many places. Most states lack foresight in decision-making thus making planning for future administrations that much more difficult.

Jessica Chu

Yet again I find myself thinking that another one of our thinkers is too idealistic. Scott puts too much faith in local governments to uphold the common good. Corruption is just as common locally as it is federally, and even if local governments know what’s best for their area, will they do it? A number of factors have to be taken into consideration when pointing to a decentralized government as the ideal. Human virtue comes first and foremost. It’s common for political economic thinkers to put too much weight into the natural good that they feel everyone possesses. Friedman assumed that parents would pay for all their children’s education because they know it will improve society in the long run and Norman Angell whole heartedly believed that rational humans wouldn’t go to war because it’s unprofitable in the long run. It’s safe to say Norman Angell was completely wrong, as Europe proved only a year after he wrote his essay. In Friedman’s case, it would be much more common for parents to get discouraged from saving by the large price tag of college or disregard their children’s education altogether.
Back to Scott. Even, say, if the local government were acting only for the interest of their population, they’re bound to have budget constraints. They get little to no federal aid, so instead, they have to tax their citizens enough to set up institutions such as public education and welfare. And what of enforcement? Will local police suffice? That’s another program to fund.
Granted, Scott has as point when he says that central government is too detached from the people and the cities its trying to govern, but going to the other extreme seems to be the wrong choice.

Lisa Xu

At the heart of Scott’s thesis, I think, is a critique of authoritarian power. In “Seeing Like a State”, he states that tragic episodes of state development find their roots in a combination of three elements: 1) the high modernist ideology that an administrative ordering of nature and society is possible; 2) the unrestrained use of power of the modern state, regardless of leftist or rightist ideology; and 3) a weak or prostrate civil society which lacks the capacity to resist the state’s plans.

Each of these elements can be traced back to the problem of overly centralized power and unrepresentative government. With regard to 1), whether the state genuinely seeks to do good is immaterial if it lacks the information to design a realistic plan, or the means to competently carry it out. High modernist ideology is generally associated with authoritarian bureaucracy, under which there are neither checks from within the government or protests from civil society to prevent a flawed plan from being implemented. Extensive bureaucracy also does not guarantee that officials are competent or incorruptible. 2) and 3) are closely related to 1), in that a weak civil society enables the unrestrained state to carry out its designs.

John Keh

In James Scott’s “Seeing like a State”, he criticizes centrally planned socialist forms of government. Scott has a valid argument and supports it with a ton of empirical evidence. I found that his overall message is that high modernist planners may believe that they have the solution to societal problems, but there is actually no such solution. All the complexities that exit within a society mean that there is no simple solution to society’s problems. The simplification of society often leads to the loss of many of its intricacies that add to the “character” of that society. Getting rid of these local traditions and customs actually leads to a loss of a lot of what that society has to offer. I both agree and disagree with Scott’s argument. Change, even if forced, leads to a further progression of society. Even if old local traditions are lost, new ones will form. In this globalized age, a uniform, or commonly accepted, culture and set of traditions create an easier platform from which an individual can move freely and adapt easily, which in my eyes is good, even if it means the erosion of local traditions.

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