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Forests, Trees, and Intellectual Roots...
J. Bradford DeLong
There is a lot that is excellent in James Scott's Seeing Like a State.
On one level, it is an extraordinary well-written and well-argued tour through the various forms of damage that have been done in the twentieth century by centrally-planned social-engineering projects--by what James Scott calls "high modernism" and the attempt to use high modernist principles and practices to build utopia. As such, every economist who reads it will see it as marking the final stage in the intellectual struggle that the Austrian tradition has long waged against apostles of central planning. Heaven knows that I am no Austrian--I am a liberal Keynesian and a social democrat--but within economics even liberal Keynesian social democrats acknowledge that the Austrians won victory in their intellectual debate with the central planners long ago.
This book marks the final stage because it shows the spread of what every economist would see as "Austrian ideas" into political science, sociology, and anthropology as well.
No one can finish reading Scott without believing--as Austrians have argued for three-quarters of a century--that centrally-planned social-engineering is not an appropriate mechanism for building a better society.
But on a second level, it is an act of displacement. Friedrich Hayek, after all, won the Nobel Prize in Economic Science for making many of Scott's key arguments: that the bureaucratic planner with a map does not know best, and can not move humans and their lives around the territory as if on a chessboard to create utopia; that the local, practical knowledge possessed by the person-on-the-spot is important; that the locus of decision-making must remain with those who have the craft to understand the situation; that any system that functions at all must create and maintain a space for those on the spot to use their local, practical knowledge (even if the hierarchs of the system pretend not to notice this flexibility). These key arguments are well known: they are the core of the Austrian economists' critique of central planning.
From one perspective, this is a compliment to the Austrians: their arguments are powerful and applicable, and it is striking that others looking at the same problem come up with their conclusions. From another perspective, this is odd: we all think better thoughts when we explicitly recognize and acknowledge our intellectual roots.
II. Seeing the Forest
Scott's Seeing Like a State begins with a ride through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German forestry. In Germany, "scientific" forestry led to the planting and harvesting of large monocrop forests of Norway spruce and Scotch pine. And for the first century or so the pockets of forest-owners bulged as more and more valuable trees were harvested from the increasingly-ordered and managed forests.
But the foresters did not understand the ecological web that they were trying to manage: Clearing of underbrush to make it easier for lumberjacks to move about in the forest "greatly reduced the diversity of insect, mammal, and bird populations" (p. 20); the absence of animals and the absence of rotting wood on the forest floor greatly reduced the replenishment of the soil with nutrients. In places where all the trees are mature, of the same age and of the same species, storms can wreak catastrophe as trees knock each other over like bowling pins. Pests and parasites that attack a particular species find a bonanza and grow to epidemic proportions when they find a monocrop forest.
The result was what Germans call Waldsterben--the death of the forest, as it becomes both a pale shadow of its previous ecological richness and an inefficient source of timber for human use.
Why does Scott begin with such a tale of pseudo-scientific hubris in Germany before 1900? After all, he could have looked across the North Sea at England a century or so before, where the systematic experimentation and analysis of the agricultural revolution had led to a quite sophisticated understanding of what patterns of crop rotation, nutrient addition, and farm diversity could produce maximum sustainable and maximum economic yield. Why not tell a story about how human communities successfully managed a sustainable agriculture, rather than one about how human communities unsuccessfully created an unsustainable forestry?
Scott opens with his tale of German foresters because he argues that this type of interaction--people in rooms lined with green silk lay out complicated plans, which are then approved by the politically powerful, implemented with no regard for local conditions or local knowledge, and wind up as disasters--is typical of how states have dealt with problems and people in the twentieth century. When states--bureaucrats in offices in the capital--try to assess what is going on, they use maps: maps of territory, often with the demarcations between plots or regions made to be straight lines that meet at right angles, whether or not such lines of demarcation make any sense for those who live on the ground; maps of people--the lists of names and relationships that allow the state to track those from whom it will claim "obligations"--maps of laws, that fit human relationships of gift, exchange, and indebtedness that have both economic and emotional facets into a few well-defined categories of right and wrong.
But the map is never the territory. Scott reports that the first railroad from Paris to Strasbourg ran straight east from Paris across the plateau of Brie, far from the populated Marne, because the bureaucrat Victor Legrand drew the line so. The consequence was that the railroad was ruinously expensive because Victor Legrand forgot that to be useful a railroad has to carry goods and passengers from where they are to where they or their owners want them to go--not look like a pretty straight line on a map back in Paris (p. 76). By page 87 the reader is well-prepared to agree with Scott that the map is never the territory, and that what the state "sees" is only a very small slice of reality.
III. The Critique of "High Modernism"
However, these discussions of forests and maps are just the warm-up. Scott's main argument begins on page 87 as he lets twentieth-century states have it with both barrels. Scott then mounts a vicious, powerful, and effective fangs-bared critique of what he calls "high modernism": the belief that the bureaucratic planner with a map--whether Le Corbusier designing a city, Vladimir Lenin designing a planned economy after what he thought he knew of the German war economy, or Julius Nyerere "villagizing" the people of Tanzania--knows best, and can move humans and their lives around the territory as if on a chessboard, and so create utopia. Scott sees the "idea of a root-and-branch, rational engineering of entire social orders in creating realizable utopias" as a twentieth-century idea that has gone far to making this century a dystopia.
A. High Modernism in Urban Planning
Scott's critique of "high modernism" as a mode of urban planning focuses on Brazil's capital, the now more than one generation-old planned city of Brasilia. As far as they possibly could, the designers of Brasilia tried to achieve the spatial segregation of different aspects of life--housing in a different place from work, recreation, traffic, public administration in different districts as well--as high-modernist guru Le Corbusier had commanded.
The consequences of the plan--as far as it could be carried out--are insane. As Scott writes of the central square of Brasilia:
Scott draws heavily on the excellent work of Jane Jacobs to criticize this planned, surprise-free, every-apartment-building-looks-the-same high-modernist order of pre-planned Brasilia. Jacobs argued that rigid spatial segregation of functions made for visual regularity from the bird's-eye view of the architect but made the city damn hard to live in. By contrast, it is the mingling of residences with shopping areas and workplaces that makes an urban neighborhood interesting--and livable. And this urban diversity of uses cannot be planned by the high-modernist architect. At best it can be planned for--by the government providing a framework and infrastructure for urban development instead of specifying land use down to the last square centimeter.
As Scott argues, even planners who recognize diversity will never plan it. You cannot spend your life at the office, and bureaucratic budgets are limited. Thus:
B. High Modernism, the Revolutionary Party, and the Planned Economy
Scott's second example of "high modernism" run amuck at enormous human cost is Lenin's attempt to design the revolution, the society, and the economy of Russia.
To Lenin, "the party is to the working class as intelligence is to brute force, deliberation to confusion, a manager to a worker, a teacher to a student, an administrator to a subordinate, a professional to an amateur, an army to a mob, or a scientist to a layman" (p. 149): the vanguard party possesses the scientific theory--Marxism--that allows it to plan the revolution. And the transmission of information and commands must be one-way only: the only thing that the party could learn from the workers would be petty-bourgeois ideologies that would infect it as with a disease (p. 155).
After the revolution, according to Lenin, utopia will be built through use of the state. Quoting State and Revolution, Scott draws out of Lenin's ideas for economy and society the image of a gigantic ocean liner, captained by the party's politburo:
Or as Lenin put it in his "Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government:
And the end of the process that Lenin sees in State and Revolution--an end that Scott calls "chillingly Orwellian"--no one will be able to move an inch from their assigned place:
Scott contrasts the communism of Rosa Luxemburg and Alexandra Kollontai to that of Lenin. Luxemburg did see that when one was exploring new social territory: "only experience is capable of correcting and opening new ways. Only unobstructed, effervescing life falls into a thousand new forms and improvisations, brings to light creative force, itself corrects all mistaken attempts" (p. 174). And Luxemburg did see that Lenin's "socialism... decreed from behind a few official desks by a dozen intellectuals" was headed for complete disaster:
We all know the economic and human consequences of Lenin's centrally-planned soviet vision. Scott writes that the high estimates--20 million or so--of deaths from the collectivization of agriculture have "if anything, gained more credibility as new archival evidence has become available" (p. 202). Yet he notes that from Stalin's perspective collectivization was certainly a success:
C. "Villagization" in Tanzania
Scott's third major example of destructive high modernism is Julius Nyerere's attempt from 1973 to 1976 to move all the rural inhabitants of Tanzania into villages. Five million farmers and their families were moved into newly-constructed villages set up so that the state could easily deliver social services to (and levy taxes from) the populations.
Nyerere believed that Tanzanians should live in villages--rather than scattered across the countryside where agricultural resources were to be found--because:
And what if the farmers did not want to live in villages, or did not want to grow the crops that Nyerere's bureaucrats back in The House of Peace thought that they should grow? Then: "[i]t may be possible--and sometimes necessary--to insist on all farmers in a given area growing a certain acreage of a particular crop until they realize that this brings them a more secure living, and then do not have to be forced to grow it" (p. 231).
The consequences of Nyerere's policies were predictable. As Scott summarizes:
The only bright spots were "the Tanzanian state's relative weaknesses... as well as the Tanzanian peasants' tactical advantages, including flight, unofficial production and trade, smuggling, and foot dragging" which "combined to make the practice of villagization" less destructive than it might have been (p. 247).
IV. Trees, Forests, and Roots
A. Deja Vu
Well before the middle of the book this non-Austrian liberal-Keynesian economist was--any economist would be--struck by a strong sense of deja vu. Scott's declarations of the importance of the detailed practical knowledge possessed by the person-on-the-spot--of how such knowledge cannot be transmitted up any hierarchy to those-in-charge in a way to do any good--of how the locus of decision-making must remain with those who have the craft to understand the situation--of how any system that functions at all must create and maintain a space in which there is sufficient flexibility for craftsmen to exercise their local, pratical knowledge (even if the hierarchs of the system pretend not to notice this flexibility)--all of these will strike any economist as very, very familiar.
All of these seem familiar to economists because they are the points made by Ludwig von Mises (1920) and Friedrich Hayek (1937) and the other Austrian economists in their pre-World War II debate with socialists over the possibility of central planning.
Hayek's adversaries--Oskar Lange and company--argued that a market system had to be inferior to a centrally-planned system: at the very least, a centrally-planned economy could set up internal decision-making procedures that would mimic the market, and the central planners could also adjust things to increase social welfare and account for external effects in a way that a market system could never do.
Hayek, in response, argued that the functionaries of a central-planning
board could never succeed, because they could never create both
the incentives and the flexibility for the people-on-the-spot
to use the immense amount of knowledge about the actual situation
that only people-on-the-spot can know.
In Hayek's view, as he wrote in "The Use of Knowledge in Society," the fundamental economic problem is:
All of Scott's examples are cases illustrating that the centrally-planned social-engineering that Scott calls "high modernism" is definitely not a way to solve this fundamental economic problem. The bulk of Scott's book is spent adducing evidence for the critique of centrally-planned social engineering that had been made by Friedrich Hayek back before World War II.
Yet a casual reader of the book would not find any significant pointers to the Austrian intellectual tradition--no references to works like "The Impossibility of Socialist Calculation," "The Use of Knowledge in Society," or "Competition as a Discovery Procedure" that are directly on point for Scott's critique of centrally-planned social-engineering (the only works referred to are The Road to Serfdom and the collection Studies in Philosophy, Economics, and Politics, with no references to the individual works collected in the volume).
B. Where Is Hayek?
So how is it that Scott can see the trees and the overall forest so very very well, but does not see his own intellectual roots?
I should note that today almost every single economist--even those who (like me) are profoundly hostile to many of Hayek's arguments (that government regulation of the money supply lies at the root of the business cycle, that political attempts to reduce inequalities in the distribution of income are likely to lead to totalitarianism, that the Federal Reserve should be abolished, that the competitive market is the "natural spontaneous order" of human society)--agrees that Hayek and his company (including Scott) hit the particular nail that is Scott's central theme, the critique of high-modernist centrally-planned social-engineering, squarely on the head.
Scott's Seeing Like a State's index contains no references to Ludwig von Mises. It does contain six references to Friedrich Hayek:
The first two references I agree with. Hayek is write in criticizing the inflexibility of the command economy, and Scott is right in arguing that the market economy is not the "natural" form of human social order.
The third, fourth, and fifth references seem to me to miss the point: no one reading Hayek should be surprised that he is skeptical about claims to useful theoretical knowledge, the unanimity between the left and right branches growing out of the anarchist tradition is not "curious" but a result of these two branches' common roots, and the late Foucault (even though correct, and at the time of his death a serious student of liberal political economy) is not the expert of choice on liberal political economy.
The sixth reference may be the key. Scott cannot cite Edmund Burke in Seeing Like a State--and much of Scott's book consists of praise for the wisdom embodied in community practices in a Burkean vein--except as an "apologist... for... power, privilege, and property." And Scott cannot embrace Friedrich Hayek out of the fear that it will turn his book into a "case for politically-unfettered market coordination." Instead, he believes that his argument is as much a critique of "market-driven standardization" as of "bureaucratic homogeneity."
C. Rubber Tomatoes
How can market-driven standardization have the same consequences as the commands of architects who have never lived in the cities they design, or as the collectivization of Soviet agriculture, or as the forced "villagization" of Tanzanian peasants?
It is unclear.
Scott has a long critique of agricultural extension services and agricultural development programs in the third world, and the scorn their "experts" had for the practical knowledge of the rural peasant (pp. 270-306). But any Austrian would agree with all of it: the claims of the experts from the center that they know everything and the peasant knows nothing about how to grow crops in Ghana is ludicrous.
Woven into the critique of agricultural development programs are asides about the destructiveness of DDT, the effect of sterile hybrid seeds in diminishing the autonomy of the farmer, the vulnerability of American monoculture farms to pests and epidemics, and the pre-packaged relatively-tasteless--but overwhelmingly cheap--rubber tomatoes developed to be machine-sprayed and machine-picked. However, people bought (and buy) rubber tomatoes because they are cheap--because relatively little social labor is required to produce them. Overall we have the "unparalleled agricultural productivity" of the industrial West, in which the U.S. is a major exporter of food products even though its economy now employs fewer farmers and farm laborers than gardeners and groundskeepers.
The argument that market-driven processes are as harmful to human freedom as state-led high modernism appears suddenly at the end of a discussion of the importance of practical, local knowledge and expertise. Scott calls this practical, local knowledge "metis," taking the word from the skill traditionally attributed to Odysseus. Takes it to be a counterweight to the type of theoretical or technical knowledge held by bureaucrats, scientists, and others (pp. 309-341). Most such practical knowledge cannot be easily summarized and simple rules, and much of it remains implicit: the devil is in the details.
In the middle of this discussion of "metis" we suddenly read that:
But when we look around at modern large-scale bureaucratic capitalism, we see what Scott calls "metis" everywhere. Everything from the flick of your wrist so that the supermarket laser-scanner reads the bar code (try it some time) to the virtual experience at flying 747's that airline pilots gain in simulators to knowing when you have lost your lecture audience and need to back up to knowing when it too risky to drive the moving van over Donner Pass--all of these are forms of metis. Attempts to design-out metis--to turn workers into efficient, pre-programmed automatons as in the imagination of Frederick W. Taylor--usually fail. They fail precisely because they do not make allowance for the importance of local, practical knowledge. And when they fail businesses that recognized the importance of their workers' skills take up the slack.
We have lost many forms of metis. But as Scott points out, many of them are well-lost:
And overall local, practical knowledge does not seem to be vanishing because of large-scale bureaucratic capitalism. Indeed, the modern forms of metis whose destruction Scott mourns on pages 337-339 were the creations of (previous generations of) large-scale bureaucratic capitalism.
The key fault of what Scott calls "high modernism" is its belief that details don't matter--that planners decree from on high, people obey, and utopia results. Note that Scott's conclusion is not just that attempts at high-modernist centrally-planned social-engineering have failed. It is--as von Mises argued 70 years ago--they are always overwhelmingly likely to fail. As Scott puts it:
Yet even as he makes his central points, Scott appears unable to make contact with his intellectual roots--thus he is unable to draw on pieces of the Austrian argument as it has been developed over the past seventy years. Just as seeing like a state means that you cannot see the local details of what is going on, so seeing like James Scott seems to me that you cannot see your intellectual predecessors.
That the conclusion is so strong where the evidence is so weak is, I think, evidence of profound subconscious anxiety: subconscious fear that recognizing that one's book is in the tradition of the Austrian critique of the twentieth century state will commit one to becoming a right-wing inequality-loving Thatcher-worshiping libertarian (even though there are intermediate positions: you can endorse the Austrian critique of central planning without rejecting the mixed economy and the social insurance state).
And when the chips are down, this recognition is something James Scott cannot do. At some level he wishes--no matter what his reason tells him--to take his stand on the side of the barricades with the revolutionaries and their tools to build utopia. He ends the penultimate chapter of his book with what can only be called a political pledge-of-allegiance:
But then comes the chapter's final sentence: "Understanding the history and logic of their commitment to high-modernist goals, however, does not permit us to overlook the enormous damage that their convictions entailed when combined with authoritarian state power" (p. 341).
Friedrich Hayek, ed. (1935), Collectivist Economic Planning: Critical Studies on the Possibility of Socialism (London: Routledge: 0678007659).
Friedrich Hayek (1937), "Economics and Knowledge," Economica 4, pp. 33-54.
Friedrich Hayek (), "The Impossibility of Socialist Calculation,"
Friedrich Hayek (1945), "The Use of Knowledge in Society," American Economic Review 35, pp. 519-30.
Friedrich Hayek (), "Competition as a Discovery Procedure"
Jane Jacobs (1961), The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Vintage).
Jane Jacobs (1965), The Economy of Cities (New York: Vintage).
Frank Knight (1936), "The Place of Marginal Economics in a Collectivist System," American Economic Review 26:2, pp. 255-6.
Abba Lerner (1934), "Economic Theory and Socialist Economy," Review of Economic Studies 2, pp. 51-61.
James Scott (1998), Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press: 0300070160).
Ludwig von Mises (1920), "Die Wirtschaftsrechnung im sozialistischen Gemeinwesen," Archiv fur Sozialwissenschaften und Sozialpolitik 47:1, pp. 86-121.
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