« Web Assignment 8: Government Failures: Chaubey Students | Main | Political Economy 101: Schedule and Readings »

October 21, 2007


Tomas Salcedo

I don't believe Scott's characterization of state intervention as a concept. The market is an amazing mechanism to organize transactions, distribute goods and induce innovation. The key reason for this is something that Scott in "Seeing Like a State" mentions many times, and that is that the ultimate decision power of the individual who is involved in a given situation is the best means by which to govern it. I believe that this is a fundamental truth, individuals usually will make the best decisions with regard to something involving their own self interest. However, I have trouble believing what is considered an even more fundamental truth which is that a conglomeration of people pursuing their own self interests creates a harmonious society. Just because market outcomes are more efficient do not make them fair. One thing that advocates of unchecked free markets like Scott and Friedman ignore is that a society cannot exist without an authority that arbitrates over those who pursue legitimate self interest. Without such an authority there would be no way of preventing people from taking advantage of each other. In my opinion the basis of society should be fairness, and when that is upheld by the market, which many times is the case, then I absolutely believe in it, but when it contradicts what the market would otherwise dictate, then I believe a higher authority should step in.

Irina Zeylikovich

I don’t think Scott necessarily presents a scenario of “politically unfettered market coordination” – in fact he says that is not his aim at all (p. 8). While Scott eloquently attacks certain features of high-modernism, namely its tendency to “diminish the skills, agility, initiative, and morale of [its] intended beneficiaries,” he is quick to qualify such statements and point to successful cases of high-modernism, mainly in the West. The danger, Scott argues, comes not from high-modernism itself, but when an authoritarian state with coercive power annexes high-modernist principles. In that sense I agree with Scott – certain features of high-modernism are conducive to progress (like miniaturization and some degree of simplification/standardization), but they must be introduced in moderation.
Where I do disagree with Scott is his claim about the motivations of the “visionary intellectual planners,” who he argues “were animated by a genuine desire to improve the human condition.” I may be just too cynical to buy something like that, especially in case of the Soviet Union. Perhaps Lenin did want to better conditions, but Stalin, who was the one to ultimately bring collectivization and large-scale planning to the USSR, was definitely not motivated by the desire to improve the human condition; at best he was motivated by the desire to improve the state condition.

Christina J. Adranly

As opposed to the two previous commenters, agree with Scott’s conceptualization of the role of the state. He states the prevalent influence of “high modernism”—or the supreme confidence in the ability of science to improve nature and society—on 20th century politicians. The main implication of this is overly involved social engineering. Though these plans are ambitious and work to simplify and clarify happenings in society, he concludes that “high modernist” principles actually obscure and erase local differences and practices, which is a problematic way of viewing the world.

Instead, Scott argues for the use of practical knowledge, or “metis,” which effectively takes into account those local effects which are invisible when a universal model is applied. Personally I believe in a more personal approach to affairs—from politics to business to education to healthcare to personal relationships. Custom-tailored solutions are always more helpful. It is overly simplistic to assume that a generalization can “fix” society; no model can be universally applied. Moreover, this mechanization of society frightens me somewhat. For example, genetic engineering of fruits and vegetables, though a more efficient way of production, alters what naturally is supposed to occur in the environment. I agree that scientific and technological advancement occupy an important place in society and government, however it is important not to extend this mechanization too far, for the sake of citizens and thus for the sake of the state.

Karina Tregub

In Seeing Like a State, James Scott’s argument regarding state-facilitated social engineering is not just about the government wanting to better society, but doing the opposite. Rather, there are certain social evolutions that gave rise to programs which were incapable of producing the results they had set out to deliver. In his analysis of these state- initiated tragedies of the 20th century, such as collectivization in Russia and the Great Leap Forward in China, Scott underlines key preceding developments, such as social simplifications and standardizations, which made it possible for the state to intervene more often, more effectively, and in more capacities. I agree with the fact that the state would not be capable of such extensive intervention, had these social standards not been put in play. Further, these agendas gained clout in former socialist countries and Third World states, during times of instability (war, revolution, economic collapse or newly won independence), when other forms of organization had failed. Although there was a degree of uncontrolled exploitation by the state, Scott makes a challenging assumption that it was primarily the lack of representative institutions in these states that gave their authoritarian regimes this unimpeded power.

Further, I do not see James Scott as reaching the same conclusion regarding government intervention as Milton Freedman. I agree with Tomas that the government is crucial in mitigating the exploitation of some individuals by others for personal interests. I feel that Scott understands this as well. He claims that state simplification, to better organize society and nature, is not destructive in itself, as long as it is not combined with a high-modernist ideology in a developing state with an unstable government. Scott also pinpoints the problem of the overly optimistic and idealistic visions of leaders, such as Stalin and Mao, towards expanded production, scientific progress, organized human settlement, and rationalized social arrangements, which led to their failure. I agree that this confidence in scientific innovation and technical progress originated in the West. The high-modernist leaders felt compelled to catch-up to earlier Western development, and upon failing to do so, pushed for more intervention and control through miniaturization.

Ziwei Hu

I believe that Scott recognizes the dangers that are present in both heavy-handed government intervention and completely free-market based distribution mechanisms. Scott writes that “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.” Like Tomas and Karina had already pointed out, Scott does not write that all government intervention is inherently evil, and that it will always end up futile and harmful- we’ve talked about this again and again in these web discussions, that the government has been able to promote policies that contribute to the welfare of its citizens. Rather, Scott is only warning about “certain kinds of states, driven by utopian plans and an authoritarian disregard for the values, desires, and objections of their subjects.”

Although the means by which they make their arguments are different, I do believe that Scott’s vision for the role of the government is somewhat similar to that of Friedman. Both recognize the dangers of an overly large and overly powerful government and advocate for smaller, decentralized, and in Scott’s case, informal governments. However, Scott’s ideal government is different in that it would be composed of “institutions that are instead multifunctional, plastic, diverse, and adaptable – in other words, institutions that are powerfully shaped by metis.” The incorporation of local and practical knowledge might make a society less orderly, but will make it more stable and sustainable in the long run.

Krista Ellis

Scott’s argument, in connection with his example about German forestry, reminds me of the saying, ‘sometimes you lose the forest in the trees.’ Too great of a focus is put on the details that one loses sight of the big picture, as goes with central planning. Like the foresters looking for profit without taking the time to understand how the ecological system works, central planners strive to create utopia without understanding the local and cultural boundaries. A good example of this is the urban planning of Brasilia; the separation of all functions of a city into different parts of the town loses the uniqueness and functionality of a neighborhood. However, this is also an example of my disagreement with Scott. He points out the extremes, which obviously don’t work, but fails to recognize the effectiveness of moderation. A city can be centrally planed, especially in this modern day of information, and still be fully functioning. A city that has blocks laid out, room for various modes of transportation, zoning, even synchronized street lights will function smoothly and effectively; this comparison can be seen in the real world as the old cities of Europe with their webs of streets, and the linear blocks of many American cities. Another example that Scott brings up is the central planning of Lenin in the Soviet Union- planning even down to the revolution. Again, this was an extreme situation which ended up, as Scott writes, Orwellian. Yet most social democrats agree that some government planning can be successful in setting up the welfare state. In conclusion, if Scott’s argument is best argued ‘that [government] is an organization that always seeks to do good, and winds up always doing evil’ he has gone far too extreme, and fails to realize that the spread of information is everywhere allowing the government to achieve some measures of success in its interference.

ghillie little

Scott’s argument is very convincing and I can’t help, but feel everything he states holds true. Scott discusses that every government has filed to live up to the standards that were set at the creation of that specific government. These governments include several countries from the US to the USSR. Each government fails to reach the ideal system of government and settles with what works right then. Scott provides advice on what not to do as a new government, but he is unable to give anything concrete on what governments should do. Scott’s argument that governments set out to do good and always end up doing evil is extreme. Scott talks about how those in power try to implement so many policies for change, that are often implemented through coercion, and thus away from the ultimate goal of creating a “utopian movement”. He discusses finding the balance between implementing policies on the people and encouraging a certain direction that they reach on their own. I agree with Krista that the idea that government who fail to create the “utopian movement” amongst the people results in evil is very extreme. Yes, some governments do reach that extent of corruption, but there are so many factors that Scott doesn’t discuss, it is almost impossible for a system of government to be perfect. Scott says societies “can only be established with willing members; the task of government is not to try and force this kind of development, but to explain, encourage, and participate.” This is easier said than done and I find this part of Scott’s theory to be convincing, but too idealistic and impossible to implement.

Tessa Berman

Scott’s argument is ultimately about a balance between ‘metis’ and state-based knowledge. As many people have pointed out, the very concept of a state arises out of practical needs for coordination between human actors unknown to each other. Anderson’s notion of ‘imagined communities’ provides a useful counterbalance in considering Scott’s position. Though unrestrained pursuit of theoretical development goals is no doubt doomed to fail as Scott points out, the state and the notion of a state can be useful in harmonizing the wills of various peripheral authorities.

Scott points to Tanzania’s dabble with socialism as a definitive failure, mitigated only by the state’s benign-ness and weakness. In the last couple years, however, there have been studies which compared different measures of social cohesion (voluntary school funding, credit systems, etc) in villages in Kenya v. Tanzania post-villagization, based on the idea that these countries had a similar history (and arbitrary borders) up until Tanzania’s embrace of socialism. Interest in such studies, has been paid to the divisiveness of ethic differences in the two countries, and it would seem that the successes of Nyrere’s regime was actually to foster cooperation between ethnically diverse groups. While this evidence does not support the kind of state dictated development practices condemned by Scott, it is illustrative of the merit of state-led nation-building efforts in tempering conflicting individual interests. As in Tanzania, it may be the case that an organization seeking to do good will not necessarily be successful in its stated goal, but may instead create beneficial social relationships in the process which endure beyond any particular political objective.
Ultimately, the state's ability to condense knowledge may be entirely unable to account for individuals who are lost within this process, though at the same time, 'seeing like a state' provides a supplemental viewpoint necessary for engendering cooperation between various actors.

Zaheer Cassim

James Scott’s Seeing Like a State is quite an interesting read. Scott makes the point that local communities have better knowledge of their environment than government (metis) and if government tinkers with one aspect of a local community, then most things change for the worst in that community. An example of this is the villages in Tanzania. He attributes government change to high modernism, which is basically the scientific control of resources and people. Scott’s main point is that when governments try to control society, they over simplify a very complex situation, much like economics. All of these points are valid. Yet, we base our society on boundaries, as Anderson would, nationalism. If every community was totally independent from each other, then maybe Scott’s theories are valid, but there not. Friedman believed let the market decide everything and in a way Scott says the same thing, lets limit the market to a local community and they can decide how to run their lives. The problem with this is that if a community struggles to survive because of nature, who is going to bail them out? Think of New Orleans and Katrina. Say what you want, FEMA was late, but it the end they came. Had they not come, New Orleans would be a memory. There is a fire in the L.A, firemen from other districts are helping out. If society was made up of its own little communities and there was no overarching power, then society would have to fend for itself. Scott gives the example of how the Russian peasant farmers were failing to make enough grain. In a way, Russia had to implement collective farming in order to increase production of grain; otherwise everyone in the country would starve.

Another point, which Tomas talks about, is that government protects its people from one another. This is like Hobbes classic state of nature, where everyone would fend for themselves and this would be a terrible world. This is why, according to Hobbes, society initially implemented government. Big governments protect individuals from each other and other nations. Example, for the 60 years there has been peace in Strasbourg, but prior that, Strasbourg was continually being invaded. Unfortunately, its human nature.

Edward Lee

I would have to agree with Zaheer. It's true that the government can over simplify many things that are involved in the daily lives of any community. There are complex issues and many detailed factors involved when it comes to the daily activities and changes within a community. Certain things like tradition, personal freedom and growth, and the freedom to evolve on ones own. Such things as these need to be left untouched, for the most part, in order for the people or communities to control themselves and create their own future or path.

However, there are I think there are flaws to Scott's argument. It would be nice to have communities run all their activities on their own, but that could be only possible if the world was a "fair" playing ground. There are many dangers that people have, things from racism, violence, to competition, just to name a few, that people need to be protected from, and have the government regulate those type of things when necessary. There are certain traditions that are apart of society, and whether the government should intervene in those type of things should be taken care of case by case, but that is why people with the most knowledge of everyday society are chosen to be the leaders and controllers of the government. Even still, as Scott said, the people at the top with all the power have a hard time seeing the results of what the government does. In the end, cooperation between the state and its people is still the best solution.

The comments to this entry are closed.

From Brad DeLong

Brad DeLong's Schedule

Search Brad DeLong's Website


About Brad DeLong