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October 21, 2007

Comments

Wei Shao

The basic argument basically comes down to individual vs. state. Does the state triumph over individuality? Or should the state back down and allow the individuals to work themselves out? The role of government have been largely discussed in previous readings, including Polanyi and Friedman. Polanyi advocates for government regulation of the market system and attributes the chaos at the time to failures in the free market system. Friedman, on the other hand, believes that the role of government should be minimal and the market should be allowed to develop itself, and in the process eliminating government programs such as social security, progressive tax, and free education, believing that it would bring about social equality.
Like Friedman, Scott believes in minimal interventino on the part of the government. However, unlike the two discussed earlier, Scott's motives are not economic, but rather social political. To him, he believes that as the government force legibility and simplification upon its people in order to promote standardization and unificataion, the people will lose their individuality as the government loses track of its people. I have to agree that the idea is good: a homogenized state with standardized last names, legal codes, social planning, etc. However, in order to do so, there are 4 criterias that must be fulfilled:
1. Strong administrative power
2. Modernization
3. Authoriarian state
4. Weak public
However, to which end can these be achieved? Where is the boundary between absolute tyranny and public interest? As some of my peers have indicated above, despite Scott's view of such a society as a failure, the notion of such a state is good, but is difficult to achieve. More often than not, it is not the government system that fails, but rather the people who run the governments that fail. In the end, the personal interests will triumph over the public interest, and corruption often cast a dark veil over such a state-centralized society.
As I said, the argument is ultimately one between full government intervention and no government intervention. While Polanyi believes in complete government intervention, Friedman and Scott believes in no government intervention. (Here might I add that ironically, Friedman believes that lack of government regulation will promote social equality, while Scott believes that despite government homonegization of state can promote equality, it is more important to uphold individual identity) However, why must it be so polarized? Rather than no government vs. full government, why can we not have the best of both worlds? Like Polanyi said, government intervention is essential to uphold a free market system, but a regulation of government intervention can help prevent from loss of individuality due to mass unification and standardization. Personally, I believe in Keynesian model of economics and believe strongly in the role of government regulations. But then again, that's just me and perhaps a lack of government intervention can be helpful too.

Megan Roberto

I agree with Scott's assessment about the ills of the government of trying to provide a machine like solution to everything, is a flawed sytem. High modernism, as Scott calls it, lacks the ability to correctly assess the subtle differences that lie within a nation. Just as Roushani mentions in his post, Bentham's ideals of looking at the most basic unit for community well being, the individual, is important in assessing the problems and successes within a particular community/nation. Managing communities is no simple task, but resorting to one simple uniform system of improving the life of an individual is an incomplete solution to the problem.

As an optimist, I believe that individuals are the ultimate source of ingenuity and social change. The government is to supply security, as Bentham would say, and the economic system that fosters Scott's key to development "human inventiveness," and also human intelligence. Expanding on Helen and Yelena's discussion on knowing the assumptions or the "map" by which the government is deciding important measures (to accurately understand why an administration is acting), it is important to seek the involvement of individuals within the system. As others have already said, a more democratic involvement is important in deciding the appropriate course of action. Humans are incredibly inventive in solving day to day problems and should be consulted when altering the environment in which they work and live. While some say, people have the power of free speech and protests, citizens feel a time crunch that seriously limits their ability to speak out. If the government seeks to do good, it is important to consider the individual and his/her's opinion on the changes that affect their everyday life.

Disagreeing with Wei, that "the argument is ultimately one between full government intervention and no government intervention," I believe that the argument should be about the ways in which government intervention can cater to the individual, rather than than the ultimatum presented above. The evolution and experimentation of government intervention is obviously not stagnant and the goal of balancing the interest of a nation while maintaining individual integrity is the idea behind avoiding government failures. It is thus the government's job to provide a system that seeks a dialogue with its citizens.

Edward Taylor

As Professor DeLong points out, James Scott’s Seeing Like a State seems to be the most intellectually honest piece we have read as of yet. Scott’s central argument centers around the inability of the state to successfully predict or anticipate outcomes which result from intervention tactics. Even though the state for the large part has favorable intentions in mind, outcomes can be far from initially predicted. To explain this is a different context, I would like to touch on something that Roushani brought up initially. This initial idea of making decisions which will result in the greatest good is linked to that of the utilitarian moral philosophy. Originating from Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill, an act is deemed morally good if it produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people. However one of the key flaws in utilitarianism is the fact that results or outcomes are often not congruent with predictions. Such a line of thought is seen through Scott’s historical examples, particularly through his analysis of the Tanzanian “villagization.” While the initial prediction was greater prosperity for all once people moved into villages, the outcome was quite the opposite. “High Modernist” planning allowed decisions to be made by individuals who did not have the expertise to be making such decisions. The outcome created was a large migration to villages that did not have the water supplies to sustain the people moving in. Thus the outcome was far from the initial idea of a more prosperous society once villages were formed.
Nonetheless Scott’s argument is interestingly linked to Milton Friedman’s since both believe it is not the role of government to step in and try to spur social development. Even though a government will usually have good intentions, the outcomes often do not reflect these initial intentions. And yet such intervention continues to this day. Professor DeLong used the example of the dam building in the US which unintentionally devastated the salmon population. Another example that comes to mind is the US dumping excess crops into 3rd world countries to help fight starvation. However such actions have devastating effects on the local farmers in those countries. Thus I would have to agree with Scott’s solution which says that local knowledge is critical, that bureaucratic planners holding maps really do not know best, and etc. “Central-planned social-engineering” will not lead to a utopian society as many hope. Scott’s four point approach to development is very interesting and in my opinion very accurate. Glory brings up an interesting comparison between James Scott and Jeffery Sachs (an advocate of shock therapy and heavy state intervention). Clearly Scott’s line of thought is much more congruent with Friedman’s in that opposite to what Sach’s says, the state should not be the guiding force that directs society to a utopian bliss.

johndoylemason

I agree with Wei’s argument that the argument Scott is trying to present is derived from the individual vs. the state. Although I slightly disagree that Scott’s reasons for a minimal interventionist government is not only social political but economic as well. Standardization and unification serve economic roles in society a great deal. By having a unified people they will be able to function as a unified economic unit, consisting of a like goal and similarly exercising the ideal allowance of the society, rather than succumbing to greed.

Maintaining this sense of community allows the government to be minimalist. If the government is too centralized and strong and regulates over the economy, it can turn negative. This follows Scott’s ideology in Professor Delong’s prompt that an organization that always seeks to do good winds up always doing evil. This can be exacted simply through historical examples and while counter examples will always be present throughout history, Scott’s argument still holds ground.

An example of an organization doing something that is too good would be the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 where the United States in a vain attempt to counter the growing corruption and monopolization of large corporations set standards to make it illegal to partake in such actions if it would impinge trade.

Another example would be the McKinley tariff of 1890 that was aimed at aiding farmers by raising tariffs but it destroyed the marketing for outside sources to consumers domestically. This inevitably caused a further sliding of farm prices. In conclusion, Scott’s argument was in whole correct in that organizations made to do good can end up being evil if left uncheck by a large amount of government intervention.

Zaheer Cassim

I may have posted this on anothers gsi's sections. Sorry

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 Megan 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.

Alex Zaman

Seeing Like A State is in fact the most fascinating and logical book we have read thus far. Scott carefully presents the viewpoints and intentions of parties involved in his arguments- the state, the community, outsiders, etc. For example, he describes the logic of creating a grid city, noting the improved efficiency in delivering mail, facilitating the layout of drains and pipes, catching felons, etc. But he is quick to note that when planners are diagramming the layout of a city, the only way to do so is through miniaturization. Thus, he believes that “such plans, which have the scale of toys, are judged for their sculptural properties and visual order, often from a perspective that no or very few human observers will ever replicate” (58). And while the state administrative duties may be ameliorated in a grid city, these advantages can be offset by the lack of spatial irregularities and an absence of certain idiosyncrasies that come to define a city. Herein lies the paradox of the state’s intentions and the citizens’ well-being. The state aims to enhance its own functions with the intention that doing so will improve the lot of its citizenry. But compromising the two has been one of the greatest challenges in political economy. I agree with Glory in the fact that Scott’s view of government is highly concerned with the oversimplification of society, while the failure occurs when the citizenry is powerless or does nothing to change the circumstances. In this sense, high modernism becomes too formulaic and its consequences appear to be irreversible.

But while government intervention can hinder the free market and alter the social fabric of communities, it is still a necessity to some extent. As Zaheer points out, we rely on governmental entities to assist society in times of crisis, and we entrust them with a substantial amount of resources and authority in this respect. So what is the best approach? We know that citizens are the best indicators in terms of quality of life issues, and the government is generally in a position to determine the proper economic actions to take, but its power often sacrifices the well-being of the citizens in favor of a grander scheme that aims to help society as a whole but takes a little away from each individually. Scott notes that a possible solution towards this is to bolster democratic institutions in order to take into account the needs of the community in the policymaking process. This still gives government a fair amount of leeway in decision-making, but is also more representative of the interests of the citizenry. More community advocacy can often delay political and economic processes (as we are increasingly aware of in today’s society), but it ensures that the failure of high modernism does not occur.

Salman Ahmed

James Scott believes that centrally planned economies of the modernist sense largely end up in a disastrous failure. He cites many examples such as Tanzania, Chandigarh, India and Brasilia, Brazil. Collectivization of agriculture is something which only leads to negative outcomes according to Scott. As most of my colleagues have stated the arguments which support Scott’s claim are fairly self-evident. Economic and social-engineering conducted by a central authority which is far removed from the population that will be most affected by the planning is ineffective in many ways. In the case of an extremely rural population, the customs and norms are extremely nuanced which can lead to the central authority designing plans which would ineffective. The central authority is essentially displaying hubris by the fact that they are designing a plan for the so-called “quaint and backwards” village dwellers who become extremely disenfranchised. This is also a case of paternalism in which the central authority is weakening the population by implementing a plan for their own good without their input. This makes it so that the population grows becomes less self-reliant and loses the ability to deal with situations on their own.
Scott advocates strong localism as the remedy to this situation. Most of my colleagues agree that localism has its advantages such faster response to situations, the development of stronger local communities and an overall more efficient system. This perhaps would not be enough to ensure stability of the populace however. It would seem that a well balanced mix of both elements would be preferred. This is the case in most modern societies today with a mix of local and central authority. That is the basic premise behind federalism. As long as there are significant checks and balances between the two authorities, this system can be implemented effectively. A government with good intentions doesn’t necessarily always end up doing evil as most posters have agreed

Miles Palacios

As most people have already talked about, James Scott believes that if you mix certain pieces you can create a socially disastrous area. If you were to take planned cities, imposed surnames, collective farms, and same languages, and combine these with political authority and a society that isn’t strong, this could lead to a disaster. James Scott outlines four necessary conditions for creating disaster in the framework of society: state simplifications of nature and society; a high-modernist ideology; an authoritarian state; and a prostrate civil society. While mostly everyone agreed with Scott, I will have to disagree to some extent. I believe that some of the examples that he used can be attributed to other reasons, not just his four beliefs in failure. Scott mentions the Potato famine of 1850 in his section about the love high modernist’s had for mono cropping. According to his beliefs, this disaster would be pointed to the central planners. In this case its not the central planners fault, but the fault of the local farmers and agriculturists. I could right why a method does or doesn’t work if I was able to use the entire history of every country, ever. James Scott outlines four necessary conditions for creating disaster in the framework of society: state simplifications of nature and society; a high-modernist ideology; an authoritarian state; and a prostrate civil society. Also dealing with the failure of Brazil, I thought that Brazil at the time had no authoritarian state, they are considered a failure. This is probably all wrong, but I’m sure we’ll go over it.

Christine Wang

Since it appears that everyone’s covered all of Scott’s main points so far, I’d like to bring up two concepts that I personally found extremely interesting and struck me as not only as true but as important concerns for those of us who hope to one day—somehow!—improve society.

The first was the comparison of the city to an organism and planning thus like cutting into living tissue—policy makers must work with a fear that they might unknowingly damage or remove a part that is vital to the well-being of the whole (139). I think that this is one of my biggest fears and what drives me to read wayyy more in-depth in all of my assignments than is necessary (or really practical, considering there’s only 24 hours in a day)—the idea that in light of the unfathomably complex and numerous unobvious interconnections that make up human society, it’s impossible to know everything that we need to to be able to implement some change for the good with complete assurance that we won’t unknowingly set up the stage for some devastating repercussions on peoples’ lives. Scott shows throughout his book how easily government decisions and visions for the future can overlook preserving essential aspects of society while hoping to implement beneficial measures. I also thought something particularly ironic was the idea that in trying to remove “unnecessary” aspects in order to institute order and facilitate policies to better people, you might in hindsight realize the importance of those things that are now lost and in turn have to try to re-implement artificially (like in the forestry example where after Germans stripped forests down to trees in single-file lines before realizing that those trees could not live without the essential aspects of the natural forest ecosystem that they had omitted, the Germans had to expend money and effort to specifically re-implement specially designed boxes for owls, artificially raising ant colonies and introducing them to the forest—all things were previously provided by the forest without any effort on our part).

The second is that naturally arising neighborhood networks are essential to the social order of cities. Where many chance encounters are allowed to repeat, semi-anonymously, people can get develop a sense of public respect and trust with each other. A safe street needs to be watched by a substantial number of people at all times—by pedestrians, shoppers, vendors, residents in apartments overlooking it—who provide willing, informed surveillance that is inherently cumulative (as a street becomes more animated and busy, it becomes more interesting to watch and observe). Jacobs stresses the necessity of informal self-“policing”—indeed, an urban space in which the police are the only agents of order is a dangerous one indeed, as anyone can conclude from visiting the darker areas of downtown L.A. When you walk down the street, you want to feel free at all times—knowing that there are a number of other people who also desire security and order in the society—not just when the police happen to be passing through on their rounds. But such a social order can only arise voluntarily and naturally of its own. The state must be willing to allow diversity and what appears to people like Le Corbusier as disorder happen (and that requires not eliminating “street corners” for people to interact casually). I think that’s one of the hardest things for planners to do: to refrain from doing something and just let things happen. But to some extent, that’s sometimes the only way to encourage diversity and naturally occurring social activities.

One last thing: I really must say that I find it strange the way it sometimes seems as if we see only two possible categories of thinking and have to choose between free trade and government intervention—if one person sounds like they want a lot of government intervention, they’re Keynesian; if they don’t want much, they’re Friedman-esque. But they’re all trying to figure out what the government should and shouldn’t do; all are contributing to different parts to form an overall picture. Scott fills in the area about government perception of what the public wants and reminds us that it’s folly to assume that the state can foresee and plan all the necessary components to a better society. Polanyi tells us that we must make sure to place peoples’ well-being before economic growth. And with some erroneous arguments aside, Friedman points out that government spending in some areas is inefficient and best left to individuals. These aren’t always opposing and I think it’s slightly misleading to think of them as opposing camps, because that makes it seem as if there are two basic ways of thinking, and you just have to pick one and ignore the other side (or see it as something that you must always try to refute).

In other words, I have to disagree with the wording of our question that seems to place Scott in line with Friedman (as opposed to other thinkers). The closest Scott gets to sounding like Friedman is when he quotes, “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody…only when they are created by everybody” (142). But Scott’s four basic suggestions are all intended to help guide future additional government action, which Friedman wants to see nothing of.

Christine Wang

Since it appears that everyone’s covered all of Scott’s main points so far, I’d like to bring up two concepts that I personally found extremely interesting and struck me as not only as true but as important concerns for those of us who hope to one day—somehow!—improve society.

The first was the comparison of the city to an organism so that planning is thus like cutting into living tissue—policy makers must work with a fear that they might unknowingly damage or remove a part that is vital to the well-being of the whole (139). I think that this is one of my biggest fears and what drives me to read wayyy more in-depth in all of my assignments than is necessary (or really practical, considering there’s only 24 hours in a day)—the idea that in light of the unfathomably complex and numerous unobvious interconnections that make up human society, it’s impossible to know everything that we need to to be able to implement some change for the good with complete assurance that we won’t unknowingly set up the stage for some devastating repercussions on peoples’ lives. That’s why the best we can do is accumulate as much knowledge as possible in the hopes that we’ll somehow have covered what we need to know…Scott shows throughout his book how easily government decisions and visions for the future can overlook preserving essential aspects of society while hoping to implement beneficial measures. I also thought something particularly ironic was the idea that in trying to remove “unnecessary” aspects in order to institute order and facilitate policies to better people, you might in hindsight realize the importance of those things that are now lost and in turn have to try to re-implement artificially (like in the forestry example where after Germans stripped forests down to trees in single-file lines before realizing that those trees could not live without the essential aspects of the natural forest ecosystem that they had omitted, the Germans had to expend money and effort to specifically re-implement specially designed boxes for owls, artificially raising ant colonies and introducing them to the forest—all things were previously provided by the forest without any effort on our part).

The second is that naturally arising neighborhood networks are essential to the social order of cities. Where many chance encounters are allowed to repeat, semi-anonymously, people can get develop a sense of public respect and trust with each other. A safe street needs to be watched by a substantial number of people at all times—by pedestrians, shoppers, vendors, residents in apartments overlooking it—who provide willing, informed surveillance that is inherently cumulative (as a street becomes more animated and busy, it becomes more interesting to watch and observe). Jacobs stresses the necessity of informal self-“policing”—indeed, an urban space in which the police are the only agents of order is a dangerous one indeed, as anyone can conclude from visiting the darker areas of downtown L.A. When you walk down the street, you want to feel free at all times—knowing that there are a number of other people who also desire security and order in the society—not just when the police happen to be passing through on their rounds. But such a social order can only arise voluntarily and naturally of its own. The state must be willing to allow diversity and what appears to people like Le Corbusier as disorder happen (and that requires not eliminating “street corners” for people to interact casually). I think that’s one of the hardest things for planners to do: to refrain from doing something and just let things happen. But to some extent, that’s sometimes the only way to encourage diversity and naturally occurring social activities.

One last thing: I really must say that I find it strange the way it sometimes seems as if we see only two possible categories of thinking and have to choose between free trade and government intervention—if one person sounds like they want a lot of government intervention, they’re Keynesian; if they don’t want much, they’re Friedman-esque. But all these thinkers are trying to figure out what the government should and shouldn’t do; all are contributing to different parts to form an overall picture. Scott fills in the area about government perception of what the public wants and reminds us that it’s folly to assume that the state can foresee and plan all the necessary components to a better society. Polanyi tells us that we must make sure to place peoples’ well-being before economic growth. And with some erroneous arguments aside, Friedman points out that government spending in some areas is inefficient and best left to individuals. These aren’t always opposing and I think it’s slightly misleading to think of them as opposing camps, because that makes it seem as if there are two basic ways of thinking, and you just have to pick one and ignore the other side (or see it as something that you must always try to refute).

In other words, I have to disagree with the wording of our question that seems to place Scott in line with Friedman (as opposed to other thinkers). The closest Scott gets to sounding like Friedman is when he quotes, “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody…only when they are created by everybody” (142). But Scott’s four basic suggestions are all intended to help guide future additional government action, which Friedman wants to see nothing of.

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