Review: Seeing Like a State

4 stars
A celebration of the skill and wisdom of individuals, and an indictment of blind faith in rationalist planning

First published by Yale University Press in 1998, James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State is one of those rare scholarly works that have achieved wide intellectual impact beyond academia. Its core thesis is simple: states and large corporations depend on radical simplification to plan and execute, and in the process, they often ignore the skill and wisdom of the people whose lives they seek to direct. When this faith in rationality is combined with the power to coerce, disaster and misery may follow.

The case studies in the book range from collectivization in the Soviet Union to the planning of large cities. Agriculture is one of the domains Scott is most familiar with. Consequently, much of the book elucidates just how much skill and knowledge are employed on family farms and by pastoralists, even if that skill was acquired more by a “stochastic” method (trial and error) rather than a scientific one. This makes apparent the tragedy of collectivization, which devalued the skill of farmers in order to better control their productive output (or more specifically, that part of their work the state was interested in).

The book’s biggest strength are these insightful case studies; its weakness is its plodding repetition of the same argument over and over again, along with some unnecessary jargon. With better editing, the book could have easily been brought down to 300-350 pages. This makes the book a bit of a slog, but does not distract from its importance.

To be clear, the author is not merely cheerleading for free markets. Indeed, he clarifies repeatedly that powerful market actors (especially when they conspire with the state) may implement similarly disastrous schemes to maximize their own profits. He speaks of the “ecumenical” nature of a faith in high modernism and documents how some “priests” of this belief system have been willing to enter the services of communists and capitalists alike, so long as they were permitted to pursue their ultimately destructive schemes.

Socialists who have faith in nationalization and other large government schemes should read the book to better understand the risks inherent in such projects; libertarian socialists may find it useful to support their skepticism of centralized power.

The book does, of course, not account for recent developments in computing that make management of large amounts of data (e.g., soil and weather data in agriculture) more feasible, nor does it help to navigate the transition to an information economy. These 21st-century developments should not tempt us to renew our faith in rationalist central planning but strengthen our commitment to building decentralized, resilient, cooperative networks.