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Cass R. Sunstein, More is Less, in The New Republic, at 37 (May 18, 1998)

Book Review of Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James Scott


A German psychologist named Dietrich Dorner has done some fascinating experiments designed to see whether people can engage in successful social engineering. The experiments are run by a computer. Participants are asked to solve problems faced by the inhabitants of some region of the world: poverty, poor medical care, inadequate fertilization of crops, sick cattle, insufficient water, excessive hunting and fishing. Through the magic of the computer, many policy initiatives are available (improved care of cattle, childhood immunization, drilling more wells), and participants can choose among them. Once initiatives are chosen, the computer projects, over short periods of time and then over decades, what is likely to happen in the region.

In these experiments, success is entirely possible. Some initiatives will actually make for effective and enduring improvements. But most of the participants--even the most educated and the most professional ones--produce calamities. They do so because they do not see the complex, system-wide effects of particular interventions. Thus they may recognize the importance of increasing the number of cattle, but once they do that, they create a serious risk of overgrazing, and they fail to anticipate that problem. They may understand the value of drilling more wells to provide water, but they do not foresee the energy effects and the environmental effects of the drilling, which endanger the food supply. It is the rare participant who can see a number of steps down the road, who can understand the multiple effects of one- shot interventions into the system.

These computer experiments have countless real-world analogues. As everyone now knows, an unanticipated problem with mandatory airbags is that they result in the deaths of some children who would otherwise live. Less familiarly, new antiterrorist measures in airports increase the cost of air travel, thus leading people to drive instead, and driving is more dangerous than traveling by air, so more stringent antiterrorist measures may end up killing people. If government wants to make sure that nuclear power is entirely safe, it should impose tough controls on nuclear power, but those controls will increase the price of nuclear energy, which may well increase the use of fossil fuels, which may well create the more serious environmental problems.

The problems produced by selective interventions into complex systems have received a great deal of attention in recent years, in economics, in law, and in international relations. James Scott, a political scientist and an anthropologist, has now provided one of the most ambitious treatments of these problems, and probably the most unusual. Scott is an irrepressible analogizer, and his range is extremely wide. He connects such things as the ingenious "work-to-rule" strikes in Paris, where workers, determined to strike without striking, decided to follow, to the exasperating letter, all the written rules about work-related behavior, with the consequence that nothing could be done; the nineteenth-century movement for "scientific forestry," which tended to destroy forests; the hilariously failed effort to make Esperanto the world's official language; Lenin's misunderstandings of how a revolution really happens; Tanzania's catastrophic attempt to move its mobile population into stable villages; and clueless, utopian architectural schemes, designed to produce standardized and orderly cities, and culminating in the planned city of Brasilia. These and many other examples are linked by the failure of planners to understand the role of local, practical knowledge, and by the unpredictability of nature and society, which results from spontaneity, private adaptation, and efforts at informal coordination by those who are subjected to plans. In a way, Scott's book is a paean to human liberty, a very complicated paean.

Scott does not deny that some designs are well-motivated, and he acknowledges that plans can sometimes do a lot of good. He is concerned to show that when a government, with its "thin simplifications" of complicated systems, fails to understand how human beings organize (and disorganize) themselves, its plans are doomed from the start. Scott calls some governments practitioners of "high modernism," a recipe for many natural and social disasters, including tyranny. High-modernist ideology is selfconfident about scientific and technical progress and "the mastery of nature (including human nature), above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws." Left to itself, this ideology is overconfident but benign. It becomes authoritarian when it is conjoined to " an authoritarian state that is willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist designs into being." This is especially dangerous when it is linked to "a prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans." Thus the greatest calamities in Scott's book involve a weak society that cannot adapt to a government's plans.

Scott begins with a discussion of what a state must know about its society in order to engage in basic managerial tasks. In Scott's formulation, a state must render society "legible" by producing uniform measures of various sorts: the production of maps, the creation of a uniform system of measurement (thus Scott traces the complex rise of meters), even the state-generated universal use of last names. People often consider these things inevitable; Scott shows that they are anything but. And, while nothing is necessarily wrong with these efforts at making society transparent to the state, they create risks. Scott's most striking example of legibility by maps was produced by the City Office of Statistics of Amsterdam while under Nazi occupation in May 1941. The map is called "The Distribution of Jews in the Municipality." It shows an entirely legible, synoptic representation of the city's Jewish population; but it was this map that ultimately guided the rounding up of Jews, 65,000 of whom were deported.

Any state that cares about economic development is likely to be committed to the use and the exploitation of natural resources. Hence Scott links the project of "legibility" to the rise of scientific forestry, through which European states sought to make forests legible--simple, clear, easily managed and understood--in order to maximize the revenue yield of extracted timber. To this end, scientific forestry sought to produce a new, stripped-down kind of forest, with strands of same-age trees arranged in linear alleys. And here was a state-created disaster, brought about through the failure to understand concrete details. To carry out this plan for revenue maximization, nations had to engage in a "thin simplification" of the underlying natural reality and indulge in a "heroic ... constriction of vision." Seeing forests solely as timber sources, states did not focus on a number of natural and social aspects of well-functioning forests: "foliage and its uses as fodder and thatch; fruits, as good for people and domestic animals; twigs and branches, as bedding, fencing, hop poles, and kindling; bark and roots, for making medicines and for tanning; sap, for making resins."

Scientific forestry did make everything simpler to manage; and in the short term the simplification of the forest to a single commodity was a success, in the sense that it increased the revenue yield of extracted timber. After the planting of a second rotation of conifers, however, things fell apart. "An exceptionally complex process involving soil building, nutrient uptake, and symbiotic relations among fungi, insects, mammals and flora--which were, and still are, not entirely understood--was apparently disrupted, with serious consequences." Thinner and less nutritious soils developed. Same-age, same- species forests turned out to be especially vulnerable to massive storm- felling. The uniformity of species and age created a specially favorable habitat for destructive pests. In the end, those who engaged in scientific forestry turned out to be very much like the bumbling participants in Dorner's computer experiments.

The next part of Scott's book treats what he calls "authoritarian high modernism." Scott defines high modernism, a generalization of scientific forestry, as "the aspiration to the administrative ordering of nature and society." In his view, this aspiration has been widely shared in the modern era across a wide spectrum of political ideologies. Its main carriers and exponents were "the avant-garde among engineers, planners, technocrats, high- level administrators, architects, scientists, and visionaries." Their project was to simplify and to rationalize society, with an eye toward managing it for the general good. To the high modernists, historical practice deserved scant attention, amounting to the accidental, irrational deposit of past conduct; and the rationalizers sought to eliminate that deposit. Scott's goal is to show that there is much good sense in that deposit, that planners eliminate it at their peril.

Much of this argument is accomplished by a discussion of Le Corbusier. He famously aspired to total city planning, based on scorn for the unruly, unscientific arrangements produced by centuries of spontaneous urban living. " His love (mania?) for simple, repetitive lines and his horror of complexity," writes Scott, accounted for the architect's immense enthusiasm for the geometric logic of downtown Manhattan. (Those who love downtown Manhattan tend to emphasize things other than its "geometric logic.") In Scott's account, Le Corbusier's whole project culminated in the ambitious plans for Brasilia, the ultimate high-modernist city. The basic plan was for large public spaces and simple, geometrical designs. But all this produced a " disorienting quality ... exacerbated by architectural repetition and uniformity." Ultimately the real Brasilia was transformed from the original vision, by "resistance, subversion, and political calculation." Brasilia had the same relation to real cities as scientific forestry to real forests.

Scott thinks that Le Corbusier did not understand cities, in which the unscientific and the unruly are virtues rather than vices. If Le Corbusier is Scott's architectural villain, Scott's hero is Jane Jacobs, whose book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which appeared in 1961, stands as a leading critique of high-modernist urbanism. Jacobs's challenge is rooted in her appreciation for the disorderly but highly adaptive ethnography of social order at the street level. Tidy geometric orders are very different from systems that meet daily needs. A visual order may not create a functional order, but a functional order is what is necessary for actual human lives. A fine example is Boston's North End, where peace and order come from a complex, informal network of social ties. The shopkeepers watch passersby; those who come on errands keep their eyes on the street. Though the system is unruly, and not easily legible, it works.

Attempting to understand revolutionary processes, Scott proposes a similar opposition between Lenin-Le Corbusier's soulmate, a political high modernist- -and Rosa Luxemburg and Aleksandra Kollontai. Lenin was a committed planner. He believed that a revolution requires hierarchical control, centralized organization, a high degree of management and planning. Spontaneity was a dangerous obstacle, a problem to be overcome. Like Le Corbusier, Lenin admired centralized forms of bureaucratic coordination. But Luxemburg, an equally enthusiastic revolutionary, believed that this was all wrong, even foolish: a revolution depends on a high degree of creativity and initiative from below. In her view, advance planning would not only be undemocratic, it would also fail for having ignored the inevitability of surprise and complexity. Kollontai, a revolutionary activist and a constant thorn in Lenin's side, spoke in similar terms, envisaging revolutions as voyages on uncharted waters, for which, in Scott's words, "there can be no blueprints or battle plans drawn up in advance; the numerous unknowns in the equation make a one-step solution inconceivable."

Scott then moves on to discuss state efforts to engineer rural settlement and production. Soviet collectivization of agriculture is a central example. The basic project was "to take a social and economic terrain singularly unfavorable to appropriation and control and to create institutional forms and production units far better adapted to monitoring, managing, appropriating, and controlling from above." Thus the Bolsheviks tried to create a new landscape of large, hierarchical, state-managed farms that were subject to nationally dictated cropping patterns and procurement quotas. Collectivized agriculture, so understood, persisted for years. But the planners were clueless about the complexity of agricultural practices, and so ultimately it had enormous costs: "stagnation, waste, demoralization, and ecological failure." Thus the Bolshevik agriculturalists replicated the hubristic aspirations of scientific forestry, Le Corbusier, and Lenin himself.

Scott makes an illuminating distinction between the relatively solid performance of Soviet agriculture with respect to wheat and its dismal performance with respect to red raspberries. Wheat turns out to be well- suited to the thin simplifications of planners. Once wheat is planted, it needs little care until harvest, at which point it can be relatively simply cut and brought into trucks or railroad cars. It is also sturdy and easy to store. By contrast, the red raspberry bush needs a particular soil and spoils easily; without delicate handling, all is lost. The problem was that raspberries turned out to be typical. Thus fruits and vegetables failed in the Soviet's collective center and had to be produced by individual households, which were able to adapt to innumerable details that collective processes could not identify.

Scott finds a close parallel in efforts at compulsory "villagization" in Tanzania from 1973 to 1976. In this period, Tanzania's central government embarked on the massive project of permanently settling most of the country's population in villages. At the time, this was the largest forced resettlement attempt in independent Africa. President Nyerere argued that the goal of the move was to ensure that the majority of the people would not lead a "life of death." But rural Tanzanians, who had adapted to a more nomadic existence, were not at all happy with the plan, and their displeasure was quite reasonable. "As cultivators and pastoralists, they had developed patterns of settlement and, in many cases, patterns of periodic movements that were finely tuned adaptations to an often stingy environment which they knew exceptionally well. The state-mandated movement threatened to destroy the logic of this adaptation."

The planned villages were intended to be simple and streamlined, in a way that was self-consciously intended to be a negation of the past. "This was the modern administrative village, and it was implicitly associated with a modern, disciplined, and productive peasantry." But the result was a disaster for agricultural production. Scott connects this point to the more general failures, in the developing world, of state-sponsored agriculture in the twentieth century. The problem is that successful programs in the industrialized West have been ill-adapted to the complexities of agricultural production in the less temperate nations, especially in Africa.

In the concluding part of his book, Scott draws general lessons. The broadest one involves "the natural and social failures of thin, formulaic simplifications imposed through the agency of state power." These simplifications accounted for apparently disparate phenomena: ecological damage, the social failure of the scientific city, the inevitable need for improvisations and strokes of luck in producing revolutions, the resort to desperate measures unforeseen and even prohibited by plans for agricultural collectivization in both Tanzania and the former Soviet Union. To understand these problems, Scott invokes a simple concept: that of practical or cunning intelligence, called metis in early Greek poetry and discussed under other names by later Greek philosophers, particularly Aristotle.

Scott understands metis as "a wide array of practical skills and acquired intelligence in responding to a constantly changing natural and human environment." In literature, the central example is Odysseus, who demonstrated metis through his ability to improvise to the complexities of ever-changing situations. The essence of metis--the characteristic that all these failed state projects disregard--is knowledge about when and how to apply rules of thumb to concrete situations. Good doctors, good riverboat pilots, good writers, and good joke-tellers have this knowledge; they do not proceed mechanically or by rules. So too, and importantly for Scott, with specialists who deal with emergencies and disasters. "Although there are rules of thumb that can be and are taught, each fire or accident is unique, and half the battle is knowing which rules of thumb to apply in which order and when to throw the book way and improvise." On Scott's view, high modernism produced social and natural disasters because its practitioners were guilty of a particular form of hubris. They did not see what they did not know; and what they did not know had everything to do with contingent, local, context-dependent facts.

Scott offers some simple lessons for planning. States should take small steps rather than large ones. Policies are apt to be more successful if they can be reversed once they start to go awry, and so good planners ensure reversibility. Officials should assume that there will be surprises, that things will inevitably turn out quite differently than anticipated. Human beings will be extremely inventive, and move in unexpected directions, some of them perhaps destructive to your plans. (This is not bad advice for people attempting to "plan" their lives as well.) In Scott's view, these lessons argue for metis-friendly institutions, that is, for institutions that are well-adapted to the inevitability of surprise, spontaneity, and informal innovations. Scott ends with three examples of the kinds of institutions he favors: democracy; the common law, a "set of procedures for continually adapting some broad principles to novel circumstances"; and (this, in Scott's view, is the best model) language itself, as "a structure of meaning and content that is never still and ever open to the improvisations of all its speakers."

This is an unusual book, and much of its value is owed to the details of the particular case studies, and to Scott's enthusiasm and ingenuity in seeing links among apparently different human projects. Yet his ingenuity may also be excessive. For each of Scott's cases is itself a combination of multiple elements, and it is not clear that all of them really involve the same kinds of failures. Scott is more an anthropologist than a political scientist, and his book may be best taken as a set of linked narratives rather than as a sustained argument. To the extent that he is arguing against hubristic tendencies in planning, his thesis is unobjectionable, but it is not especially arresting.

Some of Scott's passages cast doubt on the entire idea of exerting mastery over circumstance, but he offers no general argument to support that doubt. After all, some large-scale plans do work. It is easy to compose a catalogue of large-scale projects that seem to have succeeded: the Roman aqueducts; the attack on Jim Crow in the American South; St. Petersburg; the Erie Canal; the Manhattan Project; the Interstate Highway System; Franklin Delano Roosevelt's reshaping of the American economy for World War II; Haussmann's redesign of Paris; Washington, D.C. (and the Washington Metro); the nuclear submarine; the eradication of yellow fever, cholera, and polio; Century City; even the assault on air pollution in the major cities in the United States in the last two decades. Were these successes metis-friendly, and if so, how?

To get a more precise understanding of Scott's claims, it is useful to isolate two strands of thought that run through his discussion. The first comes from Hayek, the second comes from Aristotle. Acknowledging his debt to both, Scott melds the two strands together and adds several elements of his own.

Hayek was the twentieth century's sharpest critic of economic planning, especially in the form of price and wage controls. His idea was that government officials lack the information of the hundreds, thousands, or millions of people whose behavior becomes coordinated, by an invisible hand, in the market's determination of wages and prices. In an entirely Hayekian vein, Scott is also concerned with the lack of information faced by the government planner. A big problem with scientific planning, he asserts, is that the planner is not always a good scientist, because he lacks the knowledge of those on whom he imposes his plans. This idea unifies a number of Scott's illustrations. Yet Scott is no simple Hayekian, for he also thinks that "large-scale capitalism" is worthy of (neo-Hayekian?) criticism. In his view, large-scale capitalism is just as much an agency of homogenization, uniformity, grids, and heroic simplification as the state. A market necessarily reduces quality to quantity via the price mechanism and promotes standardization; in markets, money talks, not people. Today, global capitalism is perhaps the most powerful force for homogenization, whereas the state may in some instances be the defender of local difference and variety.

Less Hayekian words have rarely been written. Scott seems to believe that market ordering can also be a form of "planning," producing unintended consequences of its own. Scott's Aristotelian strand consists of an emphasis on the crudeness of general rules, and the need to adapt any such rules to the manifold particulars of the individual case. Aristotle spoke of the advantages of the Lesbian Ruler, which is able, unlike a straight-edge, to adapt its form to measure various shapes; and in this spirit Scott celebrates Jane Jacobs, Rose Luxemburg, Boston's North End, traditional farmers, and metis itself, as the capacity to see how to act in multiple contexts, all different from one another.

There is a link between the Hayekian and Aristotelian strands in Scott's emphasis on the informational deficit of state-generated rules--though Scott's Aristotelianism is prior to his Hayekianism, as confirmed by his ambivalence about the market. But Scott adds several features of his own. There is something both premodern and postmodern in several of his discussions--not much more than a whiff, perhaps, but certainly no less than that, in what sometimes appears to be a kind of general skepticism about science and technology, a hostility toward the modernist aspiration to understand and hence to master social practices. It is in this vein that Scott appears so nostalgic about the practices of traditional farmers, who have little idea why their improvisations work, but who know that they work, and who proceed accordingly:

Tanzanian peasants had, for example, been readjusting their settlement patterns and farming practices in accordance with climate changes, new crops, and new markets with notable success. Actual cultivators in West Africa and elsewhere should ... have been understood as lifelong experiments conducting in-field seasonal trials, the results of which they incorporated into their ever-evolving repertoire of practices.

This appreciation of unruly, spontaneous forms of ordering is central to Scott's narratives. Thus Scott has his own aesthetic, embodied in his appreciation of the elaborate, multicolored street worlds identified by Jacobs. He sees simplifications and plans as carrying with them the potential for a kind of death, mostly aesthetic or metaphorical but sometimes literal. Indeed, Scott sometimes seems to be only a sentimentalist, a nostalgist about old practices; and in these passages, certainly, his discussion seems less an argument than a mood. Consider also this revealing passage:

A certain understanding of science, modernity, and development has so successfully constructed the dominant discourse that all other kinds of knowledge are regarded as backward, static traditions, as old wives' tales and superstitions. High modernism has needed this "other," this dark twin, in order to rhetorically present itself as the antidote to backwardness. This binary opposition also comes from a history of competition between the institutions and personnel that sprang up around these two forms of knowledge.

Of course there is truth in these passages; but anyone who opposes himself to "binary oppositions" is at risk of speaking postmodern nonsense.

The most sensible reading of what Scott has shown, and the reading that he himself favors in his best moments, is entirely rationalistic, even scientistic: an emphasis on human ignorance in the course of making plans and rules, an enthusiasm for improvisation, a recognition of people's creativity in adapting on the spot and over the course of time. In an important sentence, Scott writes that the real problem with the plans for villagification "is that such plans were not scientific or rational in any meaningful sense of those words. What these planners carried in their mind's eye was a certain aesthetic, what one might call a visual codification of modern rural production and community life." The difficulty with this codification is that "it was generalized and applied critically in widely divergent settings with disastrous results."

On Scott's view, the failed plans and the thin simplifications ignore information that turns out to be crucial. To be sure, an all-seeing computer, capable of handling all relevant information and envisioning the diverse consequences of different courses of action, may facilitate tyranny. But it need not blunder. This is the real lesson of Dorner's experiments, for which Scott has provided a wealth of real-world counterparts. And this is not the end of the story. Dorner also demonstrated the possibility of successful planning by those who are attuned to longrange effects. Scott's analysis would have been improved if he had compared success with failure, and given a clearer sense of the preconditions for success.

Still, Scott's advice is far from useless. It can be applied to contexts far afield from those that concern him here. His case studies help explain, say, why national regulation tends to work better when it consists of altered incentives rather than flat commands. Some of the most successful initiatives in American regulatory law have consisted of efforts to increase the price of high-polluting activities; and some of the least successful have been rigid mandates that ignore the collateral effects of regulatory controls. Scott's enthusiasm for metis also suggests that certain governmental institutions will do best if they act incrementally, creating large-scale change not at once, but in a series of lesser steps. We might think here not only of common law, but also of constitutional law. Many judicial problems derive from a belief that judges can intervene successfully in large-scale systems (consider the struggles with school desegregation in the 1960s and 1970s), and many judicial successes have come from proceeding incrementally (consider the far more incremental and cautious attack on sex discrimination in the same period).

And Scott also offers larger implications. A society that is legible to the state is susceptible to tyranny, if it lacks the means to resist that state; and an essential part of the task of a free social order is to ensure space for institutions of resistance. Moreover, a state that attempts to improve the human condition should engage not in plans but in experiments, secure in the knowledge that people will adapt to those experiments in unanticipated ways. Scott offers no plans or rules here, and a closer analysis of the circumstances that distinguish success from failure would have produced greater illumination. But he has written a remarkably interesting book on social engineering, and he cannot be much faulted for failing to offer a sure-fire plan for the well-motivated, metis-friendly social engineer.

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