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October 21, 2007


Jazmin Segura

James C. Scott examines in depth several massive utopian plans that have generated tragic results. He mentions the collective farms in the Soviet Union, compulsory village resettlements in Tanzania and Ethiopia, new cities based on the urban planning dictums of Le Corbusier, and the practice of monoculture agriculture.
Throughout Scott's book are examples of planners and political leaders who were ignorant of the practical interrelationships in society and nature. In each of his case studies of state-initiated social or environmental utopian engineering, Scott finds a “…pernicious combination of four elements…” that are a sure path to disaster: First, the administrative ordering of nature and society: He documents how states sought to simplify and reduce complex social or environmental systems to a few measurable components that promoted the state's ability to appropriate resources and achieve political control. Secondly, high-modernist ideology: which asserts that “…the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws…” will lead to expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, and the mastery of nature, including human nature. He also detects a common aesthetic to high-modernist projects – an aesthetic that rejects the visual chaos of natural and human systems in favor of shrilly linear landscapes. Third, the influence of authoritarian governments is vital because no democratically constituted society would choose to subject itself to the arduous administrative simplifications and high-modernist ideology embedded in these utopian schemes; indeed only an authoritarian government can impose these radical utopian programs. Last, a prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist because in most instances, utopian plans have been imposed on societies that have been drained by civil war, colonial oppression, or economic collapse.
In short, Scott argues, we have set the conditions for the worst state atrocities.

It is tempting to conclude that this book is a generalized critique of government. But I think it is not. The mistakes Scott identifies are characteristic only of a certain type of regime, the high modernist state. High modernism, as Scott identifies it, is a sort of irrational confidence in objective rationality. It becomes possible on a large scale only after the Enlightenment, and especially after the advent of "scientific" management. It is exemplified not only by Stalin, but by the, Robert McNamara's Department of Defense, and the US Bureau of Reclamations to name a few. Nor is it limited to states. Systematic flaws exist in the perception of any large hierarchical organization that makes decisions on the basis of abstract calculative rationality. For example the IMF and WB, these institutions have displaced thousands people in India to build enormous damns. Moreover, I think Scott makes it clear that he is not advocating libertarianism. Instead, he is aiming at a deeper critique of planning, one which is not merely about prices or information, but about metaphysics and epistemology.

Alexander Henson

There is a lot to be said about Scott’s aversion – nay, outright contempt – for social structures that are centrally planned. On the one hand, he provides ample evidence to the fact that when governments attempt to forcefully structure their citizens, their homes, and essentially their lives and livelihoods into neat and ordered rows to make the state more efficient, the result is almost always an utter disaster. On the other hand, however, he doesn’t make much argument for how the government can help catalyze an efficient state without completely ruining it. Furthermore, he doesn’t touch too much upon the economic sides of the equation (how things like monetary policy and the type of economy we support/sustain) and how it can and/or will affect the state, with or without central social engineering (he does, however, acknowledge the economic side, likening the central engineering to “market-driven standardization”).
While, on the whole, his arguments are compelling, it lacks a balance that could have brought more authority to his statements. There should be examples of times where central social engineering (in however limited form and under a narrow set of circumstances) have allowed the state to regain traction where it had previously lost footing. To not acknowledge any successes by the system betrays a single-sided POV that are, by and large, not as effectual as presenting a more balanced case. By identifying a set of successful examples and highlighting the very narrow and circumstantial factors that allowed that sort of engineering to succeed, he could bring more balance to his argument about how the successes were gained only because of ideal, or even lucky, factors – and thus, bring more strength to his argument that, if central social engineering is applied on an even larger scale, the results are likely to be negative.
What I find most difficult to grasp is how his arguments, built upon case studies of very extreme examples (like Lenin’s Russia or Nyere’s Tanzania) can apply to our own, more moderate cases – things like housing projects, welfare, and social security programs. It’s easy to agree with Scott on things like not allowing the government to move citizens around the state just because it will make things more efficient (or so the bureaucrats believe) because they are matters that are almost purely physical and geographical in nature, and it’s easier to see the consequences of just shuttling people away from their homes to some hovels on the countryside (read: they’ll probably be pissed). But in terms of issues that cut across social, geographic, and economic landscapes (like the aforementioned housing projects and welfare programs), it’s hard to judge whether or not these qualify as subsets of the diabolical engineering that Scott condemns. Partly because they involve a myriad of social and political issues, but also because they have, to however limited degree, perhaps succeeded. True, our welfare and housing programs are not ideal, nor are they even fully fair to the people that they intend to serve, but after years of being in service and implemented, they have not yet come to the ruinous failure that Scott may have predicted. So, then, in a country where absolutely no one will give up their own land, housing, and livelihood just because the government says so, I have to wonder if Scott’s arguments are at all pertinent or relevant to the difficult grey issues that his work does not (and perhaps cannot) categorize as unfavorable or not.

Ellen Guan

After reading through several of the previous entries, I find myself in agreement most with Christina’s position. I think she really has a point when she points out that Scott is opposed to overly involved social engineering. What some of my fellow classmates did not realize is that neither Scott nor Friedman is opposed to government intervention to oversee quarrels and that they do believe that sometimes some state modernizing activities can yield benefits. What they are opposed to, in fact, is actually what Scott calls “authoritarian high-modernism,” which is what Christina points out to be overly involved social engineering.

Scott believes that the government’s modernizing attempts that seeks to simplify matters often makes matters worse because the official themselves are ignorant to the actual conditions to make adequate responses. Like Tessa mentioned earlier, Scott argues for a balance of the “metis” and state-based knowledge, because lacking either would lead to lack of coordination and thus inefficiencies.

Personally, I really agree with Scott and Friedman that sometimes the government’s attempt to better the society actually makes it worse off. Some of my classmates stated that education might be the solution – to have educated elites with more “metis” that can better coordinate with the occurrences in the society. As of last week, I would have argued the same thing. Yet, I now think that they problem is a bit more complicated than it seems on the surface. Although education might be the key, but who has enough “metis” to educate others? If the most educated people do not understand enough about the market and the relationship between different factors in society to make the right decisions, then how can we expect that they educate the rest of us with correct knowledge?

Perhaps education along with in depth research of the market and the inter-relationships between different the phenomenon in the society would be the key. Yet again, we might not have enough resources to do this on a massive scale. In that case, the government can focus on developing the education and research of a few universities and then once adequate knowledge is obtained mass educate the rest of the public.

Jay Bessette

I agree with Tessa, Scott’s argument is absolutely about finding that balance between local and state based knowledge. “Metis” as he describes it should be the foundation for every development project that is proposed but is often left out of the equation. As is the case of Stalin in Russian, Napoleon in Paris and Algiers not to mention Brasilia.

The one exception to this argument is the long term result of Paris which today is one of the best laid out and accessible cities in the world. Initially Napoleon’s plan of opening the city through the creation of boulevards pushed the poor to the outskirts but an interesting thing consequence of this relocation happened, the poor were now able to access the entire city and to be seen as they had never been seen before. There was a new awareness from both the poor and the better off of each others existence. The poor would now become part of normal society. The extreme would be Stalin’s collectivization plan. This plan which proved disastrous economically as well as to the human population could have been successful had he coordinated with the “Metis”. Only the “Metis” had a true understanding of how a new system of production could be implemented. People at the local level could have provided much need information on the abilities of the farmers as well as whether or not the quotas could be achieved. This resulted in at over 6 million deaths which shows that the plan as Irina states “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.

I believe that the world needs to be watching China’s recent relocation of 1.3 million people in the three gorges dam project. Situated on the Yangtze River this conversion of village peasants into high rise buildings with newly acquired running water and electricity is bound to create a new social dynamic that could prove dangerous for the government. Much like the “Villagization” in Tanzania, you cannot simply move people to a newer and better location and believe that it is going to have a positive impact on those lives, the community or ultimately the state. People have power in numbers and they are now more concentrated than before and unhappy about their forced location even though it is for their own good. China may have laid its own blueprint for peasant revolution one that could have tremendous implications on the success of this growing economic power in the world.

Andrew Gurwitz

In arguing that large government almost always results in the reduction of individual liberties and metis, Scott contends that scientific management, mass production, and movements by the state towards greater administration and efficiency has had tragic consequences. The idea of the state as a organization that always seeks to do go good but winds always doing evil, is not one that can be easily dismissed when considering the colossal failures of government over time. But even just to consider the motto of Google, “Don’t do Evil.”, is to grasp the great difficulty everyone has with avoiding doing evil. Scott claims that greater administration and efficiency has eroded the value of local knowledge and metis, making people more like cogs in the machine of society, eroding individual freedom. However, we must consider the degree to which one is trapped by locality. If greater administration and standardization have allowed for more people to interact and more local barriers to be overcome, then there must be a corresponding increase in freedom of mobility. Scott harks back to the middle ages where cities are maze-like and un-navigable by outsiders. He claims this provides the citizens of the town with an inherent local advantage and it values their local knowledge. It is hard to believe though that even all the locals could have successfully navigated the streets of Bruges depicted in the book. Scott’s example of the standardization of last names shows the calculated loss of local knowledge for standard, assignable names. People’s names had value of information locally, where being the son of someone had meaning, but their name was of almost no value, even of itself, if the person was to go anywhere else. Scott describes a world of local value and information, but where people are trapped in the same local communities from generation to generation. Any teenager going off to college some place on the other side of the country can tell you the value of freedom of mobility. Finally, Scott argues against the standardization of mass production and scientific agriculture as eliminating the value of metis, but greater efficiency and division of labor has empirically proven to provide greater liberty of leisure, freeing people up to do more than just provide sustenance. The product of that being, of course, large universities where academics can think about issues and write books.

thomas wheat

James Scott’s Seeing Like a State is an overall great and well argued discussion of the damage done in the twentieth century of the recurring patterns of failure and authoritarianism in certain social engineering programs. Through what he calls “High Modernism,” Soviet collectivization, the Maoist Great Leap Forward, the precisely planned city of Brasilia--these and other projects around the world, while deeply ambitious, extracted immeasurable tolls on the people they were designed to help.
The main problem I have with Scott’s argument involves his discussion of Metis—the thing what high modernism lacks. That is "the knowledge that can only come from practical experience." Of course this makes a lot of sense. I like how he illustrated how the Tanzanians understood their land better than the state did. It is a very strong argument that has numerous parallels. For example, I’m taking a class now on Native American natural resource management, and one of the most disturbing things I have learned is the disastrous affect the U.S. government ban on controlled burning has had on Native Americans—i.e.: loss of food, livelihood, culture, etc.
The problem with the way Scott uses metis is that it could also justify negative results. Segregation and hangings in the South in the early part of the 20th century (and to a degree still today) were forms of local tradition and knowledge. Does that mean the government have not passed legislation banning segregation and hate crimes? Of course this is a fantastic scenario that Scott would not support, but it brings up the important fact that there is a fine line when states use metis to formulate policy--it can create just as many problems, if not more, than it sought to solve in the first place.

Andrew Epstein

Throughout Seeing like a State, it becomes apparent that James Scott finds problems with society stemming from a combination of High Modernism, the development of the modern state, and lack of positive civil society, which can be described as a common good found in human nature. Scott seems to think that these problems can be described under the overall heading of ignorant action from the state. It is important to understand the difference between state ignorance that leads to among other things environmental and human harm, and malevolent intentions issued by a government. It is perplexing at first for Scott to realize that many government policies set forth to improve society actually do the opposite. The problem for Scott lies in the fact that the government is trying to implement high modernist policies as solutions where they simply do not fit. It is similar to a child trying to push a circle block into a square hole and, upon destroying the block and finally forcing it into the hole, calling it a success.
The best real life example of this misused government action occurred in Tanzania between 1973-1976. Scott calls the relocation of the Ujamaa village the “largest forced resettlement scheme undertaken in independent Africa up to that time” and clearly shows the misuse of a foreign modern government. Scott says, “only by radically simplifying the settlement pattern was it possible for the state to efficiently deliver such development services as schools, clinics, and clean water,” this oversimplification led to the overall economic and human failure of this resettlement.
I feel however that Scott’s conclusion is more realistic than that of Milton Friedman. It seems Scott has a better understanding of the positive role government can have in our society if used correctly. Unlike Friedman, Scott does not want to do away with the government; he wants to alter the strong hold that high modernism has over the decision makers of the state. It seems as thought the best way to do this would be through increased education and a diversification of those who make decisions in politics. For too long an ignorant elite has made decisions for a working class and in order to begin to improve we need to find a way to allow for the voices of the many sects of society to be heard.

Samira Ghassemi

I was personally surprised to read this book with the author's agrarian angle, being that I am an Environmental Economics major (and I believe the only one in this class, unless someone wants to attest to that). So naturally I found it very witty of Scott to introduce his main point by making a correlation of German forestry and its catastrophe of managing an unnatural monocrop of trees with central planning and the damage it caused. However, the common examples he referred to were too specific and neglectes the fact that though with extreme actions are never successful, moderation can be effective. Krista pointed this out as well, and an example of this would be Iran. Before the revolution, Reza Shah had tried to "westernize" the country and enforced strict laws. Some were upset, mainly for religious reasons, but a majority benefited from the renovations. One of his most memorable changes were that he gave the country its first University in Tehran in the late 20's. Other factors are what caused the revolution - factors that could have been resolved if the people in charge were not only specialists but capable of making crucial (and effective) decisions in difficult situations - instantly - as well understand the local customs and culture of the people. Scott illustrates that states are not just lines on a map but are filled with people, thus in order to implement action that would affect their lives in a sense of a "reliable utopia," there should be a collective consensus and thorough informative decision making.

Just as the previous posters above have mentioned, influential groups may start out with a good will, yet in the end, they cross over not just "doing evil" but with selfish incentives. The possibility of corrupt governments is high, as well as any other person with power. So what's the solution? Balancing checks. Yet, Max Weber predicts in the end, society will be tangled in a web of bureaucracy. On the other side of the spectrum, even Scott and other poster as well mentioned that "the metis of its citizenry should, in mediated form, continually modify the laws and policies of the land." And just like Ziwei proposed, powerful bodies in control can be dangerous and deviate the path to a better society. Friedman is much too radical for my taste, and as for Scott, this idea of high modernism - a rejection of history and essentially banishing of politics (94) is an absurd idea. If there is anything worth stealing - its the wisdom and knowledge of others...history itself. He keeps referring to the extremity of these "high modernist schemes" and their defaults and refers to the governmental interventionists as such. Their defaults can be fixed, but it should not deter a society from banishing their political system, thus government, for the sake of a couple defects.

Nathaniel S. Aylard

To some degree I agree with Delong’s statement that James Scott takes a similar position with Friedman about the role of government in the political-economy. Time and again, states despite how benign their goals are, have failed to successfully “improve the human condition”. Like others in the forum have mentioned, Scott looks at the ability of the state to understand its goals and implement means to achieve them. Elian points out education “with in depth research of the market and its interrelationships” may be the key. However, it is this way of thinking that, for me, Scott sees as the underlying cause of state failures.

States, such as Tanzania and Russia which pursued policies of villagization and collectivization respectively, premised their policies behind the “power” and “legitimacy” of scientific knowledge. Like scientific forestry, states looked to policies that education said would be more efficient and beneficial in the long run. Thus, this means states did not question their policies because how could they be wrong? Experts said this was the right course of action. However, their results proved science and education can be wrong and lead one down the wrong path. Also, if one were to look at the dissolution of the USSR in 1989, “shock therapy” as prescribed by orthodox economists failed to produce the results education said it would. Things actually got worse because of price discrepancies between actual and state imposed prices. Yet, China, on the other hand, has been pursuing small, slow, and reversible policies of market reform; they are doing well!

Thus, to some degree I can see Scott seeing the market as beneficial because it acts upon a different sort of knowledge. It is one based on local knowledge and individual beliefs that take more into account than what can be placed on a balance sheet. Moreover, its places faith in individual “ingenuity” to understand what is best for their survival instead of relying on the assumptions “of a small planning elite” in some “office” many miles away. However, I do not wish to discount Scott’s faith in the state and belief that state intervention is a necessary benefit. After all, the market is not perfect! In Seeing like a State he describes the overall failures of state planning to understand how states should approach intervention; it is one favoring “small steps”, “reversibility”, “surprises”, and “human inventiveness”. Thus, states or those within the government need to understand that there are many ways to achieve a goal; however, their way may not be the best way despite “scientific” or researched evidence that favors it.

Evan Fleming

States’ will always implement policy in society which they intend to be ‘good’ for all and serve as a benefit for all who it is intended for. However, in reality governments stand as one of the most idealistic of all state-run institutions because of their failure to change their law with the changing of the times. Scott argues that in order for the human condition to succeed, states must take into account local conditions that we face in our day-to-day lives. I think that if we break down the idea of the highly-modernist state and its inability to foresee the deficiency that will arise in the benign laws that are forced on their subjects that conclusion that presents itself is that these organizations may seem to have positive intentions, but when these ‘goals’ are not met it does not automatically bring evil.

When Smith discusses the contemporary city and the roads being built that are supposed to increase the efficiency with which people can transport themselves from one place to another he says that “even in the case of roads, narrow criteria of efficiency ignore other ends that are not trivial. In the case of the places that people call home, narrow criteria of efficiency do considerably greater violence to human practice” (pg. 110). Smith argues that the concentrated and specific criteria that the modern state uses in order to implement infrastructure in society may be intended to be specially manufactured to fit with the frameworks of society, but the narrow-mindedness in idea creates more harm than good. In this sense, Scott argues that the state no matter how hard it tries cannot avoid doing evil thus benefiting itself rather than its citizens.

I think Smith’s argument could be more effective if he made a more clear distinction between the things that are considered ‘good’ and that that is considered ‘evil’. As he discusses the high-modernist city there are certain empirical examples that he discusses where good and evil are at play simultaneously thus giving his argument less validity. However, his reasoning is still sound recognizing the fact that in governments inability to maintain the ‘good’ in the state they are in essence failing and thus creating inefficiency for social progression and advancement.

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