Seeing Like a State

I recently finished reading Seeing Like a State, an interesting book by James Scott, a political scientist at Yale. Scott argues that many attempts to coordinate and control from the top down necessarily leave out many important details that are essential to the workings of an organically developed process. In his words “Designed or planned social order is necessarily schematic; it always ignores essential features of any real, functioning social order.” His thesis is essentially a Hayekian one. Because they can never fully collect the local knowledge of individuals, state programs often forget important features of society, in some cases leading to tragic results.

Scott begins the book with an example that I think perfectly encapsulates his broader point. He describes the story of the forestry industry in late 18th century Prussia and Saxony. In order to optimize lumber yields, states decided that there was no need to keep the seemingly unordered naturally grown forest. Instead, they could optimize forest growth, planting only the most valuable trees in a grid-like setup to enable easy access. You can probably guess what comes next.

While the managed forests worked well for one generation, soon the trees stopped growing quite as large or even dying before they could be used for lumber. Without the natural habitat they had evolved to survive in, the trees no longer received the nutrients they needed from the soil. Scientists attempted to replicate the essential features of the forest, to provide the trees with the nutrients they needed while maintaining their controlled environment. As Scott describes, “given the fragility of the simplified production forest, the massive outside intervention that was required to establish it – we might call it the administrators’ forest – is increasingly necessary in order to sustain it as well.” Just as we see in countless cases of government intervention, a single intervention ends up requiring even more intervention and government becomes necessary to maintain the system despite being itself the original source of the problem.

Scott summarizes the situation:

“The metaphorical value of this brief account of scientific production forestry is that it illustrates the dangers of dismembering an exceptionally complex and poorly understood set of relations and processes in order to isolate a single element of instrumental value…Everything that interfered with the efficient production of the key commodity was implacably eliminated. Everything that seemed unrelated to efficient production was ignored. Having come to see the forest as a commodity, scientific forestry set about refashioning it as a commodity machine. Utilitarian simplification in the forest was an effective way of maximizing wood production in the short and intermediate term. Ultimately, however, its emphasis on yield and paper profits, its relatively short time horizon, and, above all, the vast array of consequences it had resolutely bracketed came back to haunt it.” (21)

It is hard to read the excerpt above without immediately thinking of other examples where governments have attempted to replace complex natural systems with more intelligible, but far simpler systems. The remainder of the book goes through many such examples, from the design of cities and languages, to the failed communist experiments of the Soviets and the Chinese and many more. Scott picks out four features that his research suggests lead to poor results of state control. They are, in his words

  1. “Administrative ordering of nature and society”
  2. “High modernist ideology”
  3. “Authoritarian state that is willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist designs into being”
  4. “Prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans”

1, 3, and 4 are pretty straightforward, but 2 deserves some further discussion. By “high modernist ideology,” Scott refers to the belief that scientists and other experts know how to design a society in a more efficient way than ones that develop without any top down intervention. It is the belief that a centralized plan can trump decentralized spontaneous order. Hayek frequently called this attitude “scientism” in his work. Both Scott and Hayek argue that high modernist thinking is too arrogant. Ancient traditions may look backwards to a modern scientist. Customs may seem strange, cultures don’t always make sense.

But it is important to remember that just because you don’t understand the reason behind something doesn’t mean there isn’t one. To the central planner who only cared about lumber production, natural forests seemed incredibly inefficient. So the solution is simple. Cut out everything we don’t need and just keep the good stuff. In doing so, however, those seemingly useless features often reveal themselves to be essential.

Overall, I found the book to be full of interesting historical examples that each serve to illustrate this theme again and again. One point that I did wish had gotten more attention was the role of corporations and their similar top down nature. Scott briefly mentions that “large-scale capitalism is just as much an agency of homogenization, uniformity, grids, and heroic simplification as the state is.” He is quick to note that there is a major difference that “for capitalists, simplification must pay.” Still, in cases like the German forests, if the results were profitable in the short run and the problems only observable after dozens of years, it is easy to imagine capitalist firms falling into the same trap. I would have liked to see some examples of historical corporations that have also failed to simplify complex systems, but I guess that would require a much longer book. As it stands, the book serves as a useful warning for any attempt to improve a natural process that is not fully understood. Well worth the read.


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