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am 26. April 1999
First the good parts: The author has seen clearly that decisions of government arise out of the day to day activities of the people who are part of it. They treat the outside world as a material, and the same way a baker sifts flour to be even, they want to sift the world to an even consistency.
He also sees that this imposition from above results in many of the most important failures of the imposition of artificial evenness on people and on situations which are unforseen.
In itself a useful critique.
This critique is really an updated critique of the one that various german Romantics offered of the Enlightenment's vision of a rational state governed by rational laws: specifically Goethe's arguments about the organic nature of a place and its people.
He even grasps part of what makes this kind of thinking more useful in our century than in previous ones. Our technology allowed implementation of a standardised new scheme easier than documentation of old ones.
Now for the less good:
The author fails to realise this. Indeed it seems that most readers, intent on preaching libertarianism, fail to see this, and instead think that money is the solution to all ills.
Because he fails to realise this, his book becomes a running series of anecdotes, looking at particularly outstanding examples, and labeling the problem "High Modernism".
In brief: he falls prey to his own problem, by looking at history as input into methods, he searches to hard for easy examples, and fails to list as many examples caused by markets which are driven by the same principles: the reduction of the individual to an input into a process. That input must, then, be homogenised the same way one homogenises the metals to be input into an alloying process.
The book is part of a useful discussion, but the context and knowledge to engage in it does not seem to be present at this time. Unfortunate.
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am 4. März 1999
I weas excited at the idea of writing an assessment of this book, but it appears I have been beaten to the punch. I agree with Mr. De Long's entire assessment of the situation- it is a good book, but one which ignores the substantial Rightist theory of government which has gone before it. This ends up making Mr. Brin look like quite the naive critic of government.
Aside from this obvious problem, the book is an excellent primer and restatement of the basic problems of the centralized state. I disagree with the first critique of the book, which claims that he is "is addressing a wider syndrome", in that I do not see hjow it could have been more accurately assessed out of the Hayekian model of subjective specialized knowledge (it is the primary focus of the Austrian school of Economics).
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am 2. November 1998
There is a lot that is excellent in James Scott's _Seeing Like a State_. It begins with a romp through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German forestry--and the failure of the foresters to understand the ecology of the forests that they were trying to manage. It continues with a brief digression on how states tried to gain control of their populations through maps, boulevards, and names. These are prequels to a vicious and effective critique of what Scott calls "high modernism": the belief that the planner--whether Le Corbusier designing a city, Vladimir Lenin designing a planned economy, or Julius Nyerere "villagizing" the people of Tanzania--knows best, and can move humans and their lives around on as if on a chessboard to create utopia.
Then the focus appears to waiver. There is a chapter on agriculture in developing economies that characterizes agricultural extension efforts from the first to the third world as analogous to Lenin's nationalization of industry, or Nyerere's forced resettlement of Tanzanians. But the targets -- the agricultural extenders who dismiss established practices -- lose solidity and become shadows. They are no longer living, breathing, powerful rulers,; instead they are the "credo of American agriculture," the "catechism of high- modernist agriculture," the "high-modernist aesthetic and ideology of most colonial trained agronomists and their Western-trained successors" -- truly straw men.
The conclusion is a call for social systems that recognize the importance of what Scott calls "metis": a Greek word for the practical knowledge that a skilled and experienced worker has of his craft. Most such practical knowledge cannot be easily summarized and simple rules, and much of it remains implicit: the devil is in the details. T he key fault of "high modernism," as Scott understands it, is its belief that details don't matter -- that planners can decree from on high, people obey, and utopia result.
Well before the end of the book an economist is 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 metis (even if the hierarchs of the system pretend not to notice this flexibility)--all of these strike an 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 exercise what Scott calls metis.
Today all economists--even those who are very hostile to Hayek's other 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 lead to totalitarianism, that the competitive market is the "natural spontaneous order" of human society) -- agree that Hayek and company hit this particular nail squarely on the head. Looking back at the seventy-year trajectory of Communism, it seems very clear that Hayek (and Scott) are right: that its principal flaw is its attempt to concentrate knowledge, authority, and decision-making power at the center rather than pushing the power to act, the freedom to do so, and the incentive to act productively out to the periphery where the people-on-the-spot have the local knowledge to act effectively.
In short, by the end of his book James Scott has argued himself into the intellectual positions adopted by Friedrich Hayek back before World War II. Yet throughout the book Scott appears to be ignorant that the intellectual terrain which he has reached has already been well-explored.
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am 15. Dezember 1998
This is one of the most brilliant and inspiring books that I've read in a long time. James C. Scott's thesis is that states, driven by both the need to make the societies they govern legible for tax and control purposes, and by an ideology and aesthetic that equates functional order and progress with real order, systematically transform social realities. Moreover, they often do this to the detriment of their peoples and bring about long-term damage to the environment. One important human loss in this process is the erosion of practical skills and local knowledge in the fact of a hegemony of scientific knowledge and educated technical expertise. It would be hard to do justice to Scott's work in a few lines. He illustrates his thesis with a variety of case studies: Enlightenment scientific forestry, modernist town planning inspired by Le Corbusier, the disagreement between Lenin and Luxemburg on revolutionary agency, Soviet collectivisation of agriculture, compulsory villagisation in Tanzania and agriculture in the Third World. The whole amounts to a pretty devastating critique of a whole way of looking at the world, a top-down modernist perspective that ignores the lived experience and judgement of those whose interests are supposedly being furthered. Some might think that Scott's message is old news, a rehash of Hayekian critiques of central planning. Whilst there are many points in common, Scott is addressing a wider syndrome. The practical judgement, skill and local knowledge of peasants, educators, workers and those in many other walks of life , is at risk not only from state bureaucrats but also from the global capitalist market. Buyers for supermarkets, for instance, ride roughshod over the expertise of local farmers by perhaps requiring that they grow crops unsuited for their region. The only way of doing this successfully is to make extensive use of fertilisers and pesticides. Whilst bureaucrats and visionaries armed with scientific knowledge seek to construct and ordered and clean world, we can at least take some comfort in Scott's documenting of the fact that these plans never really work. The ceteris paribus conditions that hold in the lab, fail to hold in the world where ceteris is never paribus. The needs that city planners plan for are always far to simply understood by them - real city life being a far more complex order than planners comprehend (Scott draws on Jane Jacobs here). In reality these utopian schemes always foster a 'dark twin' a parallel to the constitutional order in which cunning, barter, improvisation and compromise are reintroduced to compensate for the defects in the model. Read this book: the next time a manager with a clipboard talks to you about the need for 'total quality assurance' (or some similar phrase) and dismisses your years of practical experience and judgement, you'll understand a little better where they're coming from and how to fight them.
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Scott's book gets off to a very good start, arguing that the roots of "high modernism" run deep in a particular world view that grew with scientific culture, but lacks its elements of ruthless self-criticism. What impressed me was his grasp of this ideology as a culture, albeit a culture of a few. Science too is a culture, and this phenomenon is the mentality of the technicians, the engineers, the planners...once they gain power. As one who works in this milieu, although not with the power elite, it rang very true.
He also does a wonderful job of skewering the cultural and aesthetic pretensions of people like Le Corbusier, although this has been done very well by others as well. But Scott does a very good job of showing how the aesthetic was the political, although nobody would admit it.
Unfortunately, after the first two chapters or so, Scott's writing loses its force and wonders about, making no very impressive points, and relating interesting annecdotes, providing intriguing descriptions of bad situations, but not advancing or deepening his argument.
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am 17. März 2000
The first few chapters of this book will change the way you view the world. The second half of the book tends to drag a little, but overall, the book is a good introduction to the idea of authoritarian high modernism.
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