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January 18, 2017

Book Review of "Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed"

Why do planned schemes of human betterment, designed with the best of intentions, often fail? James C. Scott, the Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Anthropology at Yale University, sets out to answer this question in his 1998 book Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.


The book contains an extraordinarily well-written and compellingly argued analysis against centrally planned social engineering projects. Scott presents a series of examples of centralised planning from across the world – scientific forestry in Germany, the great leap forward in China, collectivisation of agriculture in Russia and the building of Brasilia to name a few. Through these, Scott illustrates the flaws in the methods of the centralised modern state and its belief in what he calls the ‘high modernist ideology’. For Scott, high modernism is the attempt to design society in accordance with what are believed to be scientific laws. The high modernist has complete faith in his understanding of the world and has little or no regard for local conditions or local knowledge, and therein, for Scott, lies the problem.


To make governance possible, the state generally tries to make the social territory legible to itself. It hence embarks on creating social standardizations and builds a heuristic body of knowledge, sort of like a map to guide its functioning. Scott argues that over time, absolute belief in the veracity of these maps becomes the high modernist creed. However, this degree of confidence is misguided as these maps are mere representations and cannot adequately capture the myriad complexities of how complex social systems work. The high modernist’s view of the world is then built on incomplete information and it is easy to understand why policies and decisions made on such a limited understanding of reality are doomed to fail. Scott writes:


"...[the] larger point [is that]... in each case, the necessarily thin, schematic model of social organization and production animating the planning was inadequate as a set of instructions for creating a successful social order. By themselves, the simplified rules can never generate a functioning community, city, or economy. Formal order, to be more explicit, is always and to some degree parasitic on informal processes, which the formal scheme does not recognize, without which it could not exist, and which it alone cannot create or maintain."


According to Scott, the damage inflicted by central planning is further exacerbated by the state’s use of its authority to implement high modernist policies and the inability or ineffectiveness of civil society to counter such hedonism of the state. Scotts’ arguments against central planning are very reminiscent of the work of Hayek and other Austrian school economists. However, Scott stops short of endorsing free markets as an alternative. On markets, Scott writes:


The market is itself an instituted, formal system of coordination, despite the elbow room that it provides to its participants, and it is therefore similarly dependent on a larger system of social relations which its own calculus does not acknowledge and which it can neither create nor maintain. So, for Scott – though this idea has not been explored by the book adequately –the market is as susceptible to high modernism as the state is. Instead, he makes the case for encouraging institutions that are aware and sensitive to the use of informal social relations and processes, and advocates for caution in making selective interventions into complex systems.


In his parting words, Scott suggests to policymakers a gradualist, experimental approach that is flexible and even reversible. He reminds them that things will never go as planned and hence one should always be prepared for surprises. Ultimately, he advises policymakers to plan for human inventiveness. While it makes for long read, the book is highly recommended for all interested in knowing how complex social systems work and how policies can be designed to deliver in such complex systems.


For those interested readers, the book can be purchased here.

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