Seeing Like A State

I read James C. Scott’s Seeing Like A State a few months ago, and had thought about doing a review here, but never got around to it. It’s just as well, because Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex just posted his own review, and my feelings on the book mirror his. Really, just go read his review; I’ll add my own brief thoughts below.

To give the briefest of summaries, Seeing Like A State is a book about the dangers that result when governments embrace authoritarian high modernist ideology. The act of rendering an aspect of society or nature legible to the state often leads to the state mistakenly believing that quantifying is understanding. The initial example the author gives is the history of German forestry. Lumber was an important part of the early German economy, so the state had an interest in knowing how much lumber lay in the forests. A natural forest does not have uniformly distributed trees, which makes precision estimation difficult. The way around the problem was to reshape the forests by planting trees in a grid. Now the resources of the state were much more comprehensible; but in doing so, the complex dynamics of the forest were destroyed. As a consequence, the health of the trees could not be maintained and soon the plots became unproductive.

This is a brilliant metaphor for what can happen when a state tries to impose top down, centralized knowledge onto complex systems that rely upon metis, or local knowledge. Unfortunately, the rest of the book is mostly a series of case studies hammering this point home. While they are interesting, I couldn’t help but feeling that there was a certain amount of cherry picking going on. After all, Scott concedes that there are times when centralized knowledge is necessary; dealing with a pandemic, for example. But little effort is spent laying out principles for distinguishing, a priori, when state intervention is appropriate versus not. Without that, his argument is not nearly as compelling as it could be.

For further reading, Cato Unbound did a discussion series on the book a few years back that can be found here. James C. Scott’s initial essay contains the most important ideas in the book, and is in my mind a good enough substitute to reading the entire book.


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