Mises Daily

Seeing Like a State

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed • James C. Scott • Yale University Press, 1998 • 445 pages.

When I first read James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State, I was studying at a far-left Canadian university, and in one of its furthest-left graduate programs. I, like many of my instructors and peers, assumed that the proper goal of scholarly research was to help the state help its subjects — with everything from raising crops to raising children. I looked forward to a career as a wise academic providing the state with all the knowledge it needs to improve its subjects' condition. But my statist assumptions came to an end when I read, as Scott's subtitle puts it, How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.

Through entertaining case studies of disastrous state projects, Scott argues that government planners in the 19th and 20th centuries developed a particular aesthetic obsession: they were frustrated by the untidy complexity of real human societies. And their attempts to "improve" human life usually boiled down to attempts to simplify it — to make it look nice from the point of view of the administrator.

Simplifying the Harvest

Some of Scott's most compelling examples come from East African agriculture.

In 19th- and 20th-century Tanzania, most farmers made their living on widely dispersed homesteads, with each family deciding autonomously what to grow where and when. Thus, individual farms adapted day-to-day in their own ecological and social environments. For the government, the cost of sending inspectors to find out what each farm was producing would have been astronomical.

These methods of farming were the object of constant criticism by Julius Nyerere, the Tanzanian president from 1961 to 1985: Independent farming is backward and inefficient. Modern agriculture should be centralized, organized, and communal. From his privileged vantage point, Nyerere could see that the whole population would be much better off if they were "villagized."

So, for the betterment of the people, between 1970 and 1976, Tanzanian government soldiers and bureaucrats forcibly relocated more than ten million farmers (by Nyerere's count) into thousands of artificial "villages." Most new villagers were simply piled into trucks with whatever possessions or livestock they could carry, driven many miles from their old homes, and then unloaded at the site where the village was supposed to be — often just a stretch of road "marked off with a few surveyor's stakes."1

For those peasants fortunate enough to already live at the site of their new village, "The desire to have all the houses in a planned village perfectly aligned … might require that a house be dismantled in order to move it a scant fifty feet to the surveyor's line."2

Beyond the direct effects of this dislocation, villagization resulted in massive crop failures, destruction of farmland, losses of livestock, widespread hunger, and cholera epidemics. Unsurprisingly, many people simply fled back to their old homes as soon as they could escape.3

But on paper, for the state agents, villagization made Tanzanian society look much more orderly. All the farmers were collected together in neat little villages, usually located along all-weather roads so inspectors and policemen could easily access them. Thus, bureaucrats sitting in offices in the capital city could collect production numbers and distribute agricultural orders to the whole countryside.

Scott argues that such brutal plans appeal to state officials because they promise to make society easier to survey and to extract resources from. Unconsciously echoing Oppenheimer, he explains that the state is like a beekeeper trying to harvest the maximum honey with the minimum effort:

In pre-modern times the gathering of honey was a difficult affair. … The arrangement of brood chambers and honey cells followed complex patterns that varied from hive to hive — patterns that did not allow for neat extractions. The modern beehive, in contrast, is designed to solve the beekeeper's problem. … [T]he wax cells are arranged neatly in vertical frames, nine or ten to a box, which enable the easy extraction of honey. … From the beekeeper's point of view, the modern hive is an orderly, "legible" hive.4

Scott's word "legible" is one of his key metaphors; it refers to the ease with which outsiders can "read" the inner workings of a social system. In a perfectly legible society, all important information could be codified in rule books, maps, and censuses.

Bee farm

In a city organized along these lines, every house would have an address, and every person a registered workplace with specified, limited tasks. All the streets would be straight and numbered. Each neighborhood would contain only a certain kind of building, a certain category of citizen. Outsiders and administrators could easily navigate through such a city, manipulate it, and extract what they were looking for; no special, on-the-ground knowledge would be required.

Massive Social Bulldozing

But human societies are not naturally legible and easily controlled. They are naturally complex, messy, and changing. Special, on-the-ground knowledge is essential for almost every kind of action in society, and the lack of this knowledge constantly frustrates central planners. So ambitious states undertake what Scott calls "massive social bulldozing" in order to restart on a blank slate.5

Whatever institutions the subjects have created for themselves must be swept away. Everything particular, local, and traditional must be obliterated and replaced with the beautiful simplicity of abstract order. Only this can make society truly legible.

European architects provide some of the most extreme cases of this state-sponsored obsession with rebuilding society from scratch. In the late 1920s, the famous French architect Le Corbusier (1887–1965) was commissioned to design one structure in the new capital of the USSR. Not to be contained, "He proposed, in plans prepared in only six weeks, a vast rebuilding of Moscow."6 His idea was a model of geometric perfection, with straight streets meeting at right angles, along which residents could be shuttled every day from their colossal, rectangular apartment buildings to their colossal, rectangular workplaces.

But this plan went too far. One Soviet critic "attacked Le Corbusier's Moscow as a 'city of nowhere, … a city on paper, extraneous to living nature, located in a desert through which not even a river must be allowed to pass (since a curve would contradict the style).'" Undeterred when the Russians rejected his ideas, "Le Corbusier recycled his design virtually intact — aside from removing all references to Moscow — and presented it as La ville radieuse, suitable for central Paris."7

Le Corbusier never saw his own grand plans for Moscow (or Paris) realized. But his principles of design did inspire Lucio Costa, the architect who planned Brazil's new capital city, Brasília. Construction on Brasília began in 1957 "on an empty site … nearly 1000 kilometers from Rio de Janeiro." This was "a clean tablecloth," a place to start again without any need to compromise with existing human life.8

"The city was then designed from the ground up, according to an elaborate and unified plan. Housing, work, recreation, traffic, and public administration were each spatially segregated."9 Costa planned out enormous, empty, square plazas for recreation, and gigantic, geometric monuments for the glorification of the state. The planners even decided how many citizens would reside in Brasília: 557,000.

But when people first came to live in the newly constructed city, they found this perfectly legible landscape deeply disorienting. "Compared to life in Rio and Sao Paulo, with their color and variety, the daily round in bland, repetitive, austere Brasília … resembled life in a sensory deprivation tank."10 And the new residents even coined the term brasilite — meaning "Brasília-itis" — to describe the effect of living there.

By 1980, the city had only half as many residents as planned. And three quarters of them lived outside the residential areas planned by Costa. That is, of the 557,000 spaces built for residents, only about 70,000 were occupied.

City of Brasilia

The statist intellectuals dream that they can, with enough research, know better than all the commoners themselves how they should think and work, and where they should live and love. But instructions handed down from our rulers cannot provide the sort of knowledge that ordinary people need to farm crops or build communities.

Mètis and the Market

In real human life, the main means of navigation is improvisation, imitation, and local, contextual information. Beyond the vision of even the most intrusive and detailed state programming, there is a whole, vital world of illegible complexity, of special, on-the-ground knowledge, on which almost all human action depends. What is needed to build a farm or a business or a community is not abstract rules but applied common sense.

Scott refers to this kind of knowledge using a Greek word "mètis," which translates roughly as "wisdom" or "cunning."

Virtually any complex task involving many variables whose values and interactions cannot be accurately forecast belongs to this genre: building a house, repairing a car, perfecting a jet engine, surgically repairing a knee, or farming a plot of land. Where the interactions involve not just the material environment but social interaction as well … the mind boggles at the multitude of interactions and uncertainties.11

You have probably already noticed the similarity between Scott's ideas and those of Austrian economists: Human interactions are too complex to be handled by a central, coercive authority. Most important daily decisions must be based on the particular, subjective judgments of individuals. Intellectuals are foolish to think they can design a more rational social order; and if they put their ideas into practice, disaster is sure to follow.

Scott himself seems a little troubled by his similarity to certain free-market thinkers, and he is at pains to distance himself from "such proponents of laissez-faire as Friedrich Hayek."12 But indeed it is Hayek to whom Scott's ideas are closest.

In his most famous article, "The Use of Knowledge in Society," Hayek debunks those intellectuals who think of the economy as a mathematical puzzle to be solved by a single mind capable of taking in all the information. They imagine a perfect ruler who can make wise decisions based on detailed knowledge of the properties of all the various goods — and the desires of all the various people — in the society. Hayek's objection is that such omniscience is impossible: "the practical problem … arises precisely because these facts are never so given to a single mind."13

Similarly, James C. Scott lambastes the social planners' obsession with addressing society from the point of view of a godlike outsider. According to Scott, these state intellectuals and officials use "thin" or "stripped-down" models of reality in order to make society appear simple enough to be organized by the intentions of a single thinker.14 But the very essence of society is its daily creation and transformation by "innumerable small acts bearing no discernible overall intention."15

Hayek, drawing on Mises, argues that economic calculation is impossible for a socialist ruler. We could look at Scott's book as showing us how rulers have tried in vain to simplify society enough to make such calculation possible.

Unfortunately, Scott says again and again in Seeing Like a State that his criticisms of top-down planning could be extended to "large-scale capitalism."16 He makes these asides throughout his book even though he does not define "capitalism" and even though none of his case studies concerns a free-market project.

Indeed, Scott's description of activities belonging to the faculty of mètis ("building a house, repairing a car …") conspicuously lacks anything to do with exchange, investment, or entrepreneurship. Scott seems to believe that markets rely on authoritarian planners. But in truth they are constructed by myriad entrepreneurial planners, each handling the "multitude of interactions and uncertainties" through the use of particular, local knowledge — mètis.

James C. Scott could certainly have improved Seeing Like a State by investigating the market more seriously. But his book is nonetheless an entertaining and valuable critique of the obsessions of state planning. Scott's thinking is probably closer to the Austrians' than he knows. And he certainly led me toward them.

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