Book Club: Seeing Like A State (January 2018)

This month we read Seeing Like A State by James C. Scott

Compulsory ujamaa villages in Tanzania, collectivization in Russia, Le Corbusier’s urban planning theory realized in Brasilia, the Great Leap Forward in China, agricultural “modernization” in the Tropics―the twentieth century has been racked by grand utopian schemes that have inadvertently brought death and disruption to millions.

In this wide-ranging and original book, James C. Scott analyzes failed cases of large-scale authoritarian plans in a variety of fields. My guest Trent Fowler and I discuss the book and its many insights on why well-intentioned plans for improving the human condition go tragically awry.

If you would like to stream audio on your browser, click here listen on Soundcloud.

One of the ideas that James C. Scott brings up is that even though the functioning of the efficiency standpoint — whether its a farm or forest or society — they did have one powerful advantage was that they increased the legibility of the system that was being under control.

Think of an actual forest; it’s got random trees, it’s got dead logs, it’s got wildlife and different types of plants. From the outside perspective of a state—particularly pre-information technology—it was very difficult for someone, let’s say a King, to send their subjects to find out, for example, how much wood is there in this forest? You couldn’t know.

Indeed, this lack of legibility of the state impacts their ability to control it. You could have villagers and people who were not technically allowed to be pilfering from the state’s forest to go in there and do their foraging and do their regular business carrying out logs and taking things from the forest without actually being allowed to be there, because of this illegibility.

So one of the advantages of this kind of simplification schema has been to impose an understanding that the state has onto the ground itself. This is the opposite building a map from the territory this is saying let’s take our map and make the territory more like it.

Next, we discuss the concept of what the author calls “mites”…

… it is the idea that local knowledge comes from interacting with the system and importantly he contrasts it with “techny” which is outside this system in and of itself and tries to understand it. And what was really interesting in reading this book is that people kind of assume that this simplified model of the system that they have is the system itself. They aren’t realizing that it’s just this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The vast majority of knowledge of how the system works is not contained in any book—it’s not contained in some expert’s head—it’s interwoven in all the little actors who participate in the system. This is not just an idea for central planners. It’s not just an idea of grand architects for human society… there’s a huge body of local know-how that isn’t really written down anywhere.

We also discuss the paradox of maps, at least conceptually…

Whether you are an entrepreneur or a central planner or anyone just learning something, it’s important to remember that the map is not the territory. This is a pretty common saying but basically the maps are not the things they describe.

It’s important to not get too focused on the maps and to forget the underlying reality is significantly more complicated…

Interestingly, early populations also feature throughout the author’s analysis, particularly when it comes to the legibility of systems…

…even giving people last names, I never thought about this, but given people last names was largely a state-led effort to control the population. People just had one name and it was fine because you lived in a small village and everyone knew who you were. But it was only when you start aggregating people in large groups that just having one name doesn’t work at that level. So you need to start forcing people to have all these last names and so in English speaking countries you have names like “Baker” or arbitrary last names that people adopted for themselves because “hey you need to have a more unique name because we need to monitor and control you better.”

We close by discussing the practical applications for the author’s ideas…

I know we’ve been talking about political science and ideology and these complex systems, but for the average person who has been listening and wants to know what’s a clear takeaway from this… it’s clear from the book that there are situations where highly theoretical top-down planning can work.

The author gives the example of the space shuttle program or the Manhattan Project — these were incredibly successful theory-driven efforts where it was a top-down bureaucracy driving efforts and it worked — so it’s not the case that it never works and I don’t think it should be construed that way but rather it should be looked at that when there’s a great chance that you do not understand the system that you’re into.

That could be because there’s a lot of actors so it’s just not possibly, complexity wise, to understand all of it or it could be just that your map is too rough of a terrain.

Feel free to join in on our Facebook Group Discussion I’d love to discuss this book with you there, thanks. For February we’ll be reading The Elephant In The Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson.