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October 21, 2007


Jelena Djukic

In my reading of Scott, he takes a stand similar to the one of Friedman regarding the government intervention in reconstruction of states. Scott believes that the government intervention is good and needed to a certain degree and in certain spheres. Therefore, as noted in the previous several posts, Scott does not find the government intervention to be fully evil or bad. He believes that if the government is constituted of smart individuals who make right decisions and lead the rest of the society, this would ideally lead to prosper. However, he brings up examples of several countries where this did not turn out the way it ideally should have. He finds problematic the authoritarian high modernism practiced in China and Soviet Union and “the softer version of authoritarian high modernism” in Tanzania. In the example of Tanzania Scott examines the villagization of Tanzania by president Nyerere and his government. Nyerere attempted to reconstruct the economy of the state by concentrating the population in villages to practice agriculture hoping to achieve economic prosper. This was a great failure because it did not take into account that “the African has neither the training, skill, nor equipment to diagnose his soil erosion troubles nor can he plan remedial measures, which are based on scientific knowledge”. Clearly, this proves the lack of knowledge of those making the decision (president Nyerere) about what is actually possible to do with the available resources. This statement implies that the specifically in the case of Tanzania, president Nyerere and his government might not have been the smartest individuals to lead this reform. Consequently, planning ahead without appropriate and needed knowledge was not fruitful.
From my understanding, Scott blames the pressures on government to achieve quick economic progress as a reason for failure. In addition, as Friedman argues, failures happen even when the government has good intentions. Scott focuses on those people and governments who try to get the best but do not succeed in it, which among the others was the case with Tanzanian president Nyerere.

Beth Dukes

In “Seeing Like a State”, James Scott provides a laundry list of examples where centralized state-planning based on “high modernist” ideology has not only failed to meet its objectives, but has furthered the problems it set out to eradicate. While I can’t deny that these examples show that in many instances the gaps between what a government sets out to do, actually does, and (as Julia pointed out) says that it has done are far too large by most standards of fairness and efficiency, I don’t agree they show that centralized governments are altogether powerless in making economic progress. Contrarily, I, like Krista, see these as extreme examples, to be taken as warnings against the establishment of convoluted and misguided bureaucracies, instead of as templates of a general trend.

Divergent from Scott’s model are the “East Asian tigers” which were able to industrialize after World War II primarily through somewhat centralized systems of state-managed capitalism. Japan is perhaps the most prominent of these countries as it has risen to become the world’s second largest economy and fourth largest exporter. These countries provide counter examples of instances where governments were able to advance their economies through the kind of careful consideration that Scott believes them to be incapable of employing. Furthermore it is perhaps a number of factors—including culture, existing infrastructure, economic preconditions, and political ideology—and not just the lack of high modernist ideals that has set these countries apart.

I’d also like to mention that like many students I don’t see absolute congruence between Friedman and Scott. While it’s probably true that Friedman “would not find much to disagree with” in Scott’s piece, I’m not entirely sure that the reverse holds as well. I don’t think that Scott would go so far as to advocate the elimination of government altogether. Instead, he seems to be arguing that governments need to decentralize and change their ideology to advance. Therefore, my grievance with Scott’s argument is not that it is unsound in its logic—as is my grievance with Friedman’s argument—but that as a student of a highly interdisciplinary field, I find this argument too limited in the scope of its considerations. Basically there were more differences between Japan and Tanzania than just their ideology before World War II and thus I cannot accept “high modernism” as the sole distinguishing factor.

Allison Moore

James Scott has a very convincing argument in Seeing Like a State. He writes about the ideological preconditions of the failures of large-scale state planning. He provides some perfect case examples, which are discussed below.
Beginning with the Russian revolution and the draconian Soviet campaigns under Stalin to collectivize (hence modernize) agriculture and capture the peasantry that had made its own revolution in 1917 and the years of the civil war, Scott demonstrates the dehumanization, destruction, and environmental degradation that have very often been the main products of these grand schemes to remake the world according to high modernist ideals. Brutality had become a central feature of the Soviet regime even before collectivization and the liquidation of the Kulaks were launched, and for reasons that were often contrary or peripheral to high modernism.
But Scott argues that even under relatively benign leaders, such as Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, modernizing projects have invariably resulted in widespread bureaucratic bullying and state violence against its citizens, the destruction of viable communities and patterns of livelihood, and environmental devastation.
As shown above, Scott does an excellent job of presenting valid case examples of the government trying to do something good (or what it thought was good at the time) and it winds up doing evil. I would agree with DeLong in saying that he is one of the most intellectually honest authors we have read thus far in the semester.

Julia Lohmann

I found Scott’s argument, to be lacking any real substance for today’s world. I understand the point he is trying to make, but like Alexandra pointed out, he only uses extreme cases to prove that high modernism is intrinsically ‘evil;’ that it can never result in a better society than would emerge if people were left to their own devices. I agree that a central planner, looking only at maps, cannot possibly conceive of or understand the society that he thinks he can improve (and I do doubt, as others have pointed out, that betterment of the people at large was the true motivation behind much social planning), but Scott provides no real alternative to this process. He decries the dangers of “market driven standardization” just as vehemently as “bureaucratic homogeneity” but fails to spell out a clear prescription for where the middle ground should be. His view seems to me not only utopian (in believing that people can truly run their industries better on at the individual level) but also as extremely nostalgic for what he believed to have been a ‘simpler time.’ His discussion of “metis” struck me as quite hypocritical, because all the metis that he believes is discarded with each advance of the market or state intervention itself came out of an earlier market process. All the detailed skills of craftsmen were the result of earlier modernization processes, and the fact that these will become obsolete with new technological advances does not mean they will not be replaced with equally specific skills necessary to work the new forms of industry. Human history has been on a path for a long time now that will naturally lead to stronger states, and it is obvious that capitalism is not going to be overthrown any time soon; merely by pointing out the failures of extreme cases without providing a solution, as Scott does, is not very helpful.

Sarah Dryden

I think that Scott makes an important observation that certain states, in trying to “improve the human condition,” have definitely struggled. However, Scott asserts that they have actually failed in his title, which is debatable. He admits in his conclusion that some of the “straitjacketing” social orders were better than the unjust and inhumane systems they replaced: “almost any new order might seem preferable”. In such cases, perhaps collectivization, villagization, scientific forestry, and other authoritarian social systems designed to improve the human condition partly succeeded?

However, Scott’s overarching point that government systems imposed on a nation of people can diminish their overall capacity seems valid, and many previous posters have also agreed. Certainly, by imposing any system of behavior on an individual, it crushes that individual’s ability to innovate, explore creative solutions, and respond organically to his or her environment – just as Scott shows using the example of scientific forestry. Perhaps a real life example of this phenomenon would be our use of antibiotics in medicine: by artificially immunizing ourselves against certain bacteria, we neutralize our body’s ability to fight off infection using its own defenses. In societal structures, the ability to respond individually enhances overall resourcefulness and innovation. Scott makes the example of old-growth forests being more stable, needing less maintenance, than artificially produced forests – perhaps it is the same with social systems.

Karina believes that Scott’s arguments do not resemble those of Friedman, though they both ultimately encourage reduced reliance on government in society. She points out that Scott acknowledges the importance of social institutions in a functioning state in order to unite the interests of all citizens. However, Friedman also acknowledges this importance in his discussion of “neighborhood effects,” or in those investments that are too large for most individuals to make, etc. Though perhaps both come from different philosophical ideals and use different vocabulary, both stress the superiority of the small organization (or the individual) over the large. Both believe that individuals and small organizations can perform more efficiently and more effectively than any centrally planned or dictated system, which has natural shortcomings.

Karina also suggests that perhaps these centrally planned systems, though on intellectual short leashes, were instituted in order to expedite industrialization and compete with the Western countries. This seems interesting to consider, especially in light of Scott’s acknowledgement that they often replaced significantly more inhumane and unjust systems. Is it more important to catch up, and then federalize? Or to maintain a detached central government, though it may take longer to catch up? Certainly, Lenin and Stalin were able to increase industrialization throughout Russia at record rates due to their overwhelming centralized power. The difficult part is getting an authoritarian ruler who happens to improve certain human conditions to give up once these improvements have been attained.

Dave Koken

As many people have mentioned, Scott does not necessarily advocate for a complete disappearance of government intervention in society. Rather, what I believe he argues for more directly (something I find very convincing), is for the development of strong feedback mechanisms that gauge governmental action. Scott says, “utopian aspirations per se are not dangerous…Where the utopian vision goes wrong is when it is held by ruling elites with no commitment to democracy or civil rights…” Furthermore, he adds “A weakened civil society, which lacks the capability to resist” the visions of ruling elitists as one of the conditions for why utopian visions fail and can be especially detrimental to a society or nation. By noting the importance of a strong civil society and leaders committing to democratic ideals, Scott essentially argues for better feedback loops and the use of public opinion as a check to the power of self-righteous individual leaders. By using these mechanisms, state programs will be held in check and the government will only intrude into the personal lives of people when they specifically consent to it.

Additionally, by listening closely to the feedback of its citizens, government will be able to avoid some of the oversimplification of conditions that arises from “mapping” of societies. When individuals are allowed to voice their opinion honestly through democratic institutions, government has a much better chance of creating initiatives that reflect the true conditions and beliefs that are present within society. This avoids the problem of top-down, elitist social planning.

The idea of feedback is especially important because of Scott’s recognition of how leaders have failed in the past; namely, his idea that, “often planners ignore the radical contingency of the future.” A large reason for the “radical” nature of the future is that people, individually and collectively, change their beliefs and values over time. By maintaining consistent and honest opinion from democratic institutions, it seems government would be much more effective in its endeavors in social planning.

Norris Tran Duc

I believe that Scott’s whole argument about centrally planned social engineering, which he coins “high modernism,” centers itself on the saying: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I agree with Ziwei, Thomas, and Karina about how Scott does not condemn the government, but rather, he exposes the flaws of its system, while not disputing the presence of government intervention. There is a sense of a loss of identity that comes with the attempt of central governments to enforce their ideas and goals on their subjects. From planned economy, collectivization, and “villagization,” it seems that the intentions are good, economically cost effective, administratively time saving, and bureaucratically efficient.

Yet all the while, the government does lose sight of the people it is supposed to be representing, for the sake of more comprehensive paperwork and easier targeting and taxation. The government has lost the “metis,” the local knowledge of the people it represents. The government moves people around like chess pieces, or forces them to adopt a singular last name, all in the common goal and intention of doing what’s best for the people, and sometimes, just what’s best for the state. Like Irina said, Stalin might not even have cared about the human condition, but only for the state condition.

Yet what is actually best for the people, according to Scott, is that the government must take into account the “metis” in their decisions, acknowledge the human condition, and notice that the high-modernist ideology has blinded the state. Scott sees the "idea of a root-and-branch, rational engineering of entire social orders in creating realizable utopias" actually doing the complete opposite and leading towards a dystopia.

Stephanie Loville

I think that James Scott makes a very compelling argument in favor of the free market in Seeing Like a State. He certainly understands the dangers of a state controlled system in which high government officials make all the decisions without the practical day to day knowledge of how the decisions that they make will affect each segment of the community which they serve. There has yet to be a very successful example of this. In this respect I certainly agree with Scott and Friedman. Government intervention while in its attempts to good does often end up doing more harm. I do not think that this is always on purpose but it does have to potential to be that way. Anytime a certain group of people has power over another they have the potential to enforce their own will at the expense of the “subordinate group”. However I think that the most common case is that fact that those in the positions of power in all of their power and lofty education lack the practical means of understanding problems that do not affect them at all. So I also ask like Elllen, who is to “educate” them on these matters? I agree with her recognition of the dilemma on who has the most metis to educate the others?
It is for this dilemma and my belief that bureaucratic planners making economic and policy decisions as if they were chess pieces without regard for the local conditions is a great problem that I do agree with Scott. However I do not fully endorse his belief that the market is the solution. I do not this that the market is always the best indicator of what is best for all segments of society. I agree completely with the first comment posted by Tomas. Individuals will make the best decisions on things revolving around their self interest. And a collection of people each pursuing their individual self interests, as is expected in a market society, is NOT always fair. Fairness, justice, and equality should be the end goal. And when the cases that the market does uphold these values then by all means, let the market determine the course of action. However in the cases that it does not, for example when the market sets prices that place certain members of society at a disadvantage and below the subsistence level then I feel that it is the role of government to step in and make decisions. The only problem now is determining when the government is to come in. Should the government step in every time there is inequality? This is when it becomes important to very specifically define the role of the government in ensuring the welfare of its constituents.

Noah Castro

I take issue with the fundamental principles of high modernism because they dictate the course of human action (developmental progression) without acknowledging the diverse array of consequences that stem from technological, organizational, or procedural innovation. I recall that famous quote from the movie Jurassic Park, “you spent so much time proving that you could [defy/manipulate nature]. . . but you never stopped to think if you should [defy/manipulate nature].” Another problem with high modernism is that the end result by default is supposed to justify the means. If indeed it turns out that we have destroy the planet then all we have to do is invent new technology that will allow business as usual to carry on and everything will be ok. This model of prioritizing efficiency first, prioritized by the private and public sectors alike, is fundamentally flawed because it disenfranchises policy makers and debilitates their capacity to regulate, govern, and suppress technological/commercial/developmental phenomenon, which by its own recourse has gotten out of control. By not placing limits, regulations, or guide lines on the innumerable efforts of revolutionary industrial innovation, they end up limiting and molding us as a society because our policy makers are not able to keep up. However, to say that such tasks as the molding/development of society should therefore be entrusted to the market is erroneous because, as I have just illustrated, this process exacerbates the underlying social consequences that high modernism is responsible for.

Morgan Brewer

To me, the most important part of Scott’s argument in the part about local knowledge. James Scott points out that large government plans end in disaster when planned from a grand level, rather than locally or cooperatively.
As my classmate Andrew Gurwitz points out, Scott’s arguments were not without flaws. While theoretically arguing against scientific agriculture, it is, in actuality, a necessity for our society to function as it does. One of the largest steps for mankind was the creation of and improvement of agriculture. As Andrew again points out, the scientific advancement of agriculture is needed so that we can continue about our lives rather than just farm.
James Scott also points out an idea that I have been waiting to read in a philosopher’s writings for some time, “don’t aim for a utopia.” When discussing different kinds of government, economies, or societies, the greatest thinkers always aim for a utopia in which everyone will be happy with everything and we’ll have not problems. As Scott shows, this is often their biggest flaw and the biggest flaw of the government leaders that embrace their ideas. All we simply need to do is improve what we have bit by bit, and before we know it, we will be living in a close to perfect society.

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