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October 21, 2007


Ellen Dobie

I very much enjoyed reading Scott’s Seeing Like a State, and agree with Professor Delong’s comment that this text is the most honest (and realistic) that we’ve read this semester. Scott’s case studies warn of the dangers of abstract utilitarian knowledge and narrowness of vision when applied by either the state of the market. Such tools allow either state-officials or market mechanisms to turn everything in their reach into an economic resource. With each subsequent push towards precision and exacting all-things-natural into a hard science, the state/market is creating a “legible” society, all the easier to manage and govern. The same is done with humans (Scott focuses specifically on traditionally-marginalized populations that are troublesome for governments, such as vagabonds, gypsies, and nomadic peoples.) So what is sacrificed in the attempt to create large-scale order through state and market interventions? Everything that gets in the way of efficiency is implacably eliminated—society becomes a fine-tuned “commodity-machine” (21). Monoculture, both in the agricultural sense and a societal sense, sets in; homogenization is the tool required to keep order. Scott’s argument seems to impress that visions of large-scale order are, at the end of the day, utopic. In this sense, it seems that he is right in claiming that no matter how good a state’s intentions are, it cannot achieve good—as long as we are working under this framework.

I found Scott’s arguments to be very reminiscent of Polanyi’s, for several reasons. First of all, Scott is “uncritically admiring” of the local, the traditional, and the customary, just as Polanyi nostalgically reminisces about the social values of reciprocity and redistribution within ancient tribes. Both theorists also seek out a proper balance between market and state, and how much each entity should regulate itself and the other. For example, Scott sees evil in both institutions if taken purely by themselves: he sees both large-scale capitalistic markets and unbridled states as agents of homogenizations, uniformity, grids, (etc.) which come at the cost of human freedom (i.e. local culture, tradition, personal growth.) In the same way, Polanyi calls for a balance between the market and the state: an all-market society is dehumanizing; a state with unbridled power results in an overly-controlled society, such as his case studies of socialism and fascism. Ultimately, I feel that both Scott and Polanyi seek out a societal balance in which people are prioritized before markets. Polanyi’s Double Movement is built upon this argument: market-societies strip away humanity by commoditizing the very threads of our existence. Similarly, Scott makes the case for a society based in “resilience of both social and natural diversity…[with a] strong case about the limits, in principle, of what we are likely to know about complex functioning order” (7). Scott even points out the harms of “fiscal forestry,” in which not only are natural elements lost (flora, biodiversity, and animal species) but also human interaction with those natural elements are lost. Scott argues that even though the state is generating revenues through its interventionist policies, it is totally missing the point.

Scott, in many ways, can be viewed as a 21st century Polanyi. If Polanyi were to rewrite The Great Transformation today and update his ideas to accommodate the chief historical changes of the past 60 years (globalization, growth of capitalist markets into the financial sector, the various Socialist revolutions of the late-20th century, agricultural “advancement,” the list goes on,) I believe that we would see a thought-process very similar to Scott’s.

The chief difference between the two theorists is their ideal vision of society. Polanyi’s final chapter in The Great Transformation is a utopic manifesto of a strong and grand government that can govern a complex society with heavy justice systems (and through more justice and certain limited freedoms, he argues, comes a greater type of freedom for all of society to enjoy.) Conversely, Scott has greater anarchical undertones: the state to him is “the ground of both our freedoms and our unfreedoms.” To Scott, certain state interventions cost human well-being more than benefit it. And, unlike Polanyi, the notion of increased state-intervention over market mechanisms would be very harmful to human society.

Glory Liu

I think Ellen’s point of bringing the economy and into Scott’s argument and making him a contemporary of Polanyi is very interesting. I took a much more political approach (and yes, they are interrelated), I saw Scott’s argument in relation to a political system and civil society rather than the relationship between government and economy.

In my opinion, Scott is much more in line with Milton Friedman’s idea of the role of government rather than Polanyi’s. Scott is much more concerned with the government oversimplifying society for the sake of administrative control, visual clarity, and the idea of “legibility” and “aesthetics:” if things look like they’re under control, things are under control. State-initiated simplification of societies (whether Soviet collectivization or Tanzanian “villagization”) are ecologically and economically unsound. The biggest failure, however, is that the people themselves do not react to the growing authoritarianism of the state; they do nothing to alter the situation. This is essentially the tragedy of “high modernist” plans for social development.

What strikes me as most Friedman-esque of Scott’s argument are his 4 alternative points of development practice. By no means does Scott say this plan will work unfailingly, but he does express a stronger hope in the points: Take small steps, favor reversibility, plan on surprises, plan on human inventiveness. This strikes me as incredibly similar to a laissez-faire approach that Friedman wouldn’t disagree with: let what will happen, happen. Spontaneity—social, economic, political—is a good thing. Both place much more faith in the people than in the government; they see the government as being the problem of society, and the skills of ordinary people as the solution. Scott says that freedoms (especially civil freedoms like freedom of speech, petition, press, association) are crucial for societies to express their discontent with state functions.

And now, as you probably have guessed, I’m going to put Scott in the context of the “Development debates.” I was extremely fascinated by Scott’s four-point approach to Development because it seems completely opposite of what contemporary Polanyis (Jeffrey Sachs) would argue. Jeffrey Sachs would argue the Polanyi side of the equation: government intervention is necessary to improve the human condition. Scott, however, like Friedman or William Easterly (I talked about them in the last post) believes in the human entrepreneurial spirit, small localized solutions, and is very anti-State-intervention for reasons he explains throughout his entire book. My favorite part is that Scott writes Seeing Like a State before Sachs and Easterly wrote their point and counterpoint on poverty and development strategies.

Miranda Huey

Although I agree that Scott advocates much more strongly on the side of local, native knowledge rather than state interventions, I would not go so far as to say he finds “the notion of increased state-intervention over market mechanisms” to be harmful to society, as Ellen mentioned, or that he is Friedman-esque, like Glory says.

In his introduction, 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.” (6)

Scott's main argument is about how state interventions can go wrong, and warns against certain conditions which allow mega-failures, such as administrative ordering of nature and society, high-modernist ideology, authoritarian power willing and able to use its full force for these high-modernist designs, and a civil society that lacks the capacity to resist the plans (from introduction). Therefore, the point of his argument is not that state intervention is always worse than market mechanisms, but rather, that state interventions are susceptible to extreme failure by being too narrow-minded in their measurements and strategy.

Most importantly, I think Scott would include the imposition of markets as an institution that can have such flaws, since it commodifies and concentrates only on individual profit. He says, “As we shall see, the conclusions that can be drawn from the failures of the modern projects of social engineering are as applicable to market-driven standardization as they are to bureaucratic homogeneity.” (8)

Roushani Mansoor

Scott provides one of the most believable arguments in the limitations of government intervention. I find it extremely hard to fundamentally disagree with the logic and examples he presents. Scott believes in government involvement, “envisioning a sweeping, rational engineering of all aspect of social like in order to improve the human condition (88)”, but like Milton Freidman, bemoans the unintended, disastrous consequences that usually result. Scott’s case against high modernism is rooted Benthamite utilitarianism; the first chapter’s parable of the state and scientific forestry is an utterly realistic representation of utilitarianism, of bringing order, fiscal, aesthetic or both, to something that naturally has very little order. In its efforts to subdue chaos, the state oversimplifies abstract, complicated concepts. Scott does not argue that this form of mangerialism is horrible in theory, that it is just inherently flawed without taking simple precautions outlined in the last chapter. State governments need a way to manage sweeping, revolutionary change like the industrial revolution starting in 1830s, thus turning to high modernism as a coping mechanism “of how the benefits of technical and scientific progress might be applied- usually through the state- in every field of human activity (90).”

While the aims of high modernism are to perfect every aspect of society, Scott illuminates important institutions that modernism, in a sense, glossed over. Though Scott does not directly state it, state-sponsored high modernism was, in effect, a new religion for the modern world. Its “new moral sciences” sought to improve upon “every nook and cranny of the social order (92)”; ideas like child rearing, recreation and family structure, traditionally governed by religion. Additionally, high modernism’s “truly radical break with history and tradition (93)” puts it in direct opposition with the world’s religions that look to the past for future guidance. Underneath his argument, Scott puts high modernism in competition with established religion in which only one can succeed. Because of this tension between to the two, high modernism has “like all utopian schemes, [fallen] well short of attaining its goal, the critical fact is that is did partly succeed (19).” I think ultimately Scott believes religion will lose and states will govern personal lives much more, but he makes the distinction that high modernism will need to change its tactics and approaches, once again referring to the simple prescriptions outlined in the last chapter.

In response to previous entries, I would have to disagree with Miranda regarding Scott’s Friedman-likeness. Just on the surface, the logic of their arguments is so similar; both present critiques of popular governmental and societal structures in an effort to correct the flaws. Deeper than that, neither one is arguing for the no more government intervention, they shed light on how the current practices of government have created disastrous consequences even though they were initiated with the very best of intentions. I think the main difference between Freidman and Scott is one comes with an economic approach and the other, more anthropological, respectfully.

Helen Louie

Unlike Miranda, I would have to agree with Glory, with her argument that Scott’s argument, in certain ways, is very similar to Friedman’s argument on the government. Miranda believes that Scott is attempting to warn readers of conditions that render mega-failures and that state interventions can cause these failures. However, Friedman argues that the government has good intentions but still does things that cause failures. Scott supports Friedman’s argument when he mentioned some historical failures, such as the collectives of the Soviet Union. In addition, Scott believes that the people in power, originally started out with the intention to do good and improve human condition. However, because of greed, the pursuit of power and the unpredictability of the future, the acts become government failures.

Thus, I partially agree with Professor Delong’s prompt, because the government does not always wind up doing evil because some good is accomplished. However, more importantly is that the government does not always seek to do “good” because of all the corruption within the government that sometimes bad cannot be avoided. In addition, like Scott argued, it is hard to predict the outcome of the actions of government intervention; thus, it is hard to always do “good”.

I believe that Scott has many good points in his argument. I agree with his point, and as Miranda has pointed out, that there needs to be local, native knowledge, instead of state intervention. I believe that certain things, the state should stay out of because they do not have the knowledge. Thus, I agree with Scott when he says that it is necessary to take in consideration local condition, in order to improve local conditions.

Joyce Yawa Amoah

I am in agreement with James Scott that centrally-planned social-engineering or command economy is not a suitable developmental solution when it comes to building a society. Building a society must involve the benefactors of the said development –the people. Contrary to Lenin’s bureaucratic hegemonic doctrine that the people have nothing to contribute and that “information and command must be one-way only” (155) when he was redesigning the socioeconomic structure of Russia.

Top-down hegemonic development concepts has topped the “development debates” for over decades now. We have Jeffery Sachs and Rostov in one corner and against William Easterly all debating on the most effective “development concept” to deploy is this global economy. According to Easterly if Sachs sincerely wants to end poverty then he should be a searcher (local knowledge) instead of a planner (bureaucrats). Just like Scott, Easterly advocates the use of local knowledge when it comes to designing developmental projects instead of using bureaucrats.

So far as I am concern I think this is where there similarity between this two thinkers end. From this point of departure Scotts is more similar to Milton Friedman in his line of reasoning. This is where I agree with Glory and disagree with Ellen. As much as I am against state-led hegemony, I cannot advocate for a total free market concept. The market has to be regulated to some extent by the state. Not a Lenin style control or Julius Nyerere of Tanzania’s style of control but rather a form of democratic control where the people are involved in the design and the administration of the rules of the game.

Carolina Merizalde

In “Seeing Like a State”, James Scott explains the concept of a centrally-planned social engineering and how the state’s goal is to achieve legibility and simplification to create a unifying construct that encompasses everyone in a nation, promoting a sense of belonging and a concept of citizenship among its members. In his writing, he exhibits the state’s attempt “to make a society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and the prevention of rebellion” (2). In doing so, there is the need for society to undergo a process of homogenization, as Ellen was referring to earlier; including standardization of language, legal discourse, city-planning, weight and measures and the use of permanent last names to identify people’s background.
Scott proceeds to describe the four elements that are necessary for the materialization of this concept: administrative ordering of nature and society, high modernism, the development of an authoritarian state willing to employ coercive power in extreme situations (ex. War, economic crises, depression), and a weak civil society that would not be able to resist.
Utilizing these four elements, he then analyzes instances in world history that coincide with his theory such as the process of collectivization in Russia or the villagization in Tanzania or the development cases all over the Third World. As seen in the Soviet Experiment, the initial plan of Lenin’s administration for Russia was one of economic development and social improvement for the masses, but it developed into a campaign of terror with Stalin.
Even though at a superficial level this could seem like it was the state trying to do good and then ended up doing evil, I would allege that it was a state trying to do good but it was interrupted by the personal agenda of an individual. The Soviet Union’s system could have had a better chance at fulfilling the communist/socialist ideal if it would not have been for the paranoia of Stalin and even Lenin towards the end of his regime. It was his personal fear of opposition that led to the tyranny of his government. Thus, Scott may seem to be right about it being the case of a good intention that turned into a nightmare, but it is important to note that it went from a state working towards a common goal to a authoritarian ruler seeking to perpetuate himself and his ideas; in this example, it becomes clear that the state is doing good and then it is an individual who is doing evil.

Aditya Gandranata

I definitely agree with Miranda’s interpretation of James Scott’s work that state intervention could go wrong rather than state intervention is worse than if the state left the market alone. The point that James Scott made was that when state intervened and they only looked at the bigger picture or the map in general without looking at that particular area they were regulating microscopically, the state would do more harm to its people even though their intention might be for the best for its citizen. For example, the ruinously expensive straight-line railroad built in Paris that proved to be costly for France during Franco-Prussian War (76) and the disastrous result from the “villagization” of Tanzania from 1973-1976 (246-247).

These assertions by James Scott by no means told us that government intervention was bad for the society but instead it told us how government intervention could go horribly wrong if there was no attention to details even though, again, the state wanted to help its citizens. Friedman, on the other hand, was quite the opposite of James Scott. He told us that government should not intervene at all and that government should not act as a higher deity than its people and that the market would flourish without the state helping them.

State intervention is definitely important and with James Scott’s “warning” and Milton Friedman’s approach, we have to find a happy medium where the state should not have total control like the former Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, and we also should not have pure unregulated market to avoid the widening of the gap between the rich and the poor.

Yelena Bakman

James Scott makes some very valid points in his discussion of mapping, and how it relates to the state. A map, as we know and as he mentions, is a representation of reality from the cartographer’s perspective. Though most of it is undeniable fact, there are some aspects that the mapmaker can either ignore or emphasis by different techniques. These subtleties are what Scott seems to argue are the ways that the state is able to show its preferences and its intentions. As Scott himself writes, “All the state simplifications that we have examined have the character of maps. That is, they are designed to summarize precisely those aspects of a complex world that are of immediate interest to the mapmaker and to ignore the rest” (87). It seems to me that Scott is most bothered by the “ignore the rest” part of the situation. He feels that this is where lying and deceitfulness can come into play and therefore misguide others in power to do as the mapmaker intended since that is all the information that they have.

I think that this differs from Friedman in the fact that Friedman saw the need for government in only certain situations and in those situations to him government should have a monopoly. It would seem that Scott instead argues that the government should not have a monopoly in any situation and that there should be some other force checking the work of the mapmaker, checking for accuracy.

A point that Helen makes in her argument supports my theory. She writes, “In addition, like Scott argued, it is hard to predict the outcome of the actions of government intervention; thus, it is hard to always do ‘good’”. The outcome would depend on the interpretation of the maps that are made. If the maps are faulty then the result will be faulty as well. Thus, Helen’s point of predicting the outcome of actions mainly depends on knowing what assumptions the government is working on. If we knew the assumptions then we could follow the intent. If we could check the assumptions we could make sure that the map is not faulty. In conclusion, the power of knowing how the map was crafted, we could know what the government is working off of; this will help us judge how good the outcome of the governmental decisions were before they play out.

Kent Yamane

I like what Scott has to say about government intervention and market failures. I agree with Glory that Scott is like Friedman and that he is for the people governing and keeping government intervention at a minimum. This ties in with the inability for people to look at a map and figure where is best for people to go and direct people according to a map and resources when this will not help the cause. I these people that would be moving people around do not know all the personal situations. Each person, each town, has their own situation and the people that are most familiar with these situations should be the ones to govern. How does a centralized government know what is best for each town, they make decisions that they think best for most of the towns or for the general public when it would be better to let localized entities to govern because they know their situation better than would a centralized national government.
At the same time one would not want anarchy, we still need government intervention to a certain point, there are national situations in which localized control would be overwhelmed and unable to facilitate the necessary action. Yet for the most part to lessen the severity of market failures and create a utopia localized control is much more in line with these goals. By limiting government control one would hope to limit market failures which will help the rest of society as a whole.

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