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Seeing Like a State

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Seeing like a State

Written by James Scott

Read by Jordan Ellenberg, professor of mathematics and Discovery Fellow:

“I just finished reading James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State, which I learned about via this long, but very worthwhile, Crooked Timber post. Scott argues that complex human practices can’t be well-regulated by a central authority applying rational principles. His case studies — collective farming in the Soviet Union, villagization in Tanzania, scientific forestry, the design of Brasilia, and so on — form a disheartening roll call of grand ambitions capsized and wrecked.

In Scott’s view, the only way these practices can be successfully regulated at all is by replacing them with alternative practices, which have the advantage of being easily understandable, quantifiable, and taxable by the state, but the disadvantage of being ruinously unproductive, and destructive of human capital. The usual result is a retreat to a kind of “fake regulation” where the original local practice carries on behind the bureaucratic curtain — what Scott calls a “dark twin” that simultaneously shores up and makes a joke of the official policy. The alternative is total collapse, as illustrated by efficacy of the work-to-rule strike:

‘In a work-to-rule action, employees begin doing their jobs by meticulously observing every one of the rules and regulations and performing only the duties stated in their job descriptions. The result, fully intended in this case, is that the work grinds to a halt, or at least to a snail’s pace. The workers achieve the practical effect of a walkout while remaining on the job and following their instructions to the letter.’

What’s mostly missing from Scott’s book is a sense of hard choices. It’s easy to condemn arrogant agricultural planners who discard the peasants’ hard-won local knowledge about their crops, and draw up rectilinear blueprints for collective farms from offices a thousand miles away. But William Langewiesche’s The Outlaw Sea presents a more difficult picture, of a world economy dependent on very heavy cargoes moving very long distances on very old ships. Formally, the ships undergo frequent inspections and never sail unless judged seaworthy. In fact, driven by commercial necessity, ships go on sailing far into their decrepitude, changing names and registry when necessary, overseen by no one. Which means that a ship at sea that’s supposed to contain molasses might also be carrying heroin, or pirates, or a dirty bomb. Or it might just be carrying molasses, but be in such bad shape that it breaks up in the waves, spilling its expendable cargo and crew into the sea.

Scott would say that a more aggressive regulatory regime — if such were even possible — would be so inefficient as to kill world trade. And he’s probably right. But reading the stories in Langewiesche’s book, especially his exhaustively reported and thoroughly terrifying account of the 1994 sinking of the passenger ship Estonia, you see the downside, only occasionally mentioned by Scott, of letting local, flexible, unaccountable arrangements work everything out on their own.

Finally, Scott offers this remarkable fact about family names in the Philippines, where prior to Spanish colonization surnames had not been used.

‘Each local official was to be given a supply of surnames sufficient for his jurisdiction, ‘taking care that the distribution be made by letters [of the alphabet].’ In practice, each town was given a number of pages from the alphabetized catalogo, producing whole towns with surnames beginning with the same letter. In situations where there has been little in-migration in the past 150 years, the traces of this administrative exercise are still perfectly visible across the landscape: ‘For example, in the Bikol region, the entire alphabet is laid out like a garland over the provinces of Albay, Sorsogon, and Catanduanes… Beginning with A at the provincial capital, the letters B and C mark the towns along the coast beyond Tabaco to Tiwi. We return and trace along the coast of Sorsogon the letters E to L; then starting down the Iraya Valley at Daraga with M, we stop with S to Polangui and Libon, and finish the alphabet with a quick tour around the island of Catanduanes.'”

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