Promiscuous, Productive Ideas

James Scott’s fascinating essay reminds us that trade-offs are inescapable. Much useful local knowledge is indeed lost when names and other descriptors of roads, rivers, and even family lines are changed from their original, localized, and idiosyncratic expressions into synoptic, standardized expressions that are meaningful to a larger and more diverse group of people. In return, though, something useful is gained — namely, greater coordination among larger numbers of people.

But just how useful is this greater coordination?

If it is chiefly for commercial purposes, it’s almost certainly very useful. The coordination of the plans, expectations, and actions of larger numbers producers, traders, and consumers results in more-specialized labor, greater reliance on machinery and other capital assets (including human capital), and improved abilities to diversify — and, hence, to reduce the costs of — risks.

Or, to exploit a useful metaphor offered by Matt Ridley in his latest book, The Rational Optimist, moving from idiosyncratic descriptors to synoptic descriptors encourages ideas to become more promiscuous and, therefore, more productive.

Ridley convincingly argues that much of our prosperity results from ideas having sex with each other. One creative idea might contain one-tenth of the (figurative) DNA necessary to conceive, say, a smart phone. That potential, however, isn’t released until the idea mates with other ideas — be it one or one thousand other ideas — that contain the rest of the DNA required to successfully conceive an economically practical smart phone.

Note that in the case of ideas, monogamy is downright antisocial and undesirable. Polygamy is far more productive. More productive, too, are idea orgies as compared to simple idea coupling. Free love might be destructive when practiced by humans, but it’s all to the good when ideas go at it with each other, without inhibition.

The easier it is for ideas to get together, check each other out, and jump into bed with each other, the greater will be the number of newly created ideas — ideas that would not otherwise be conceived. Synoptic descriptors — if not quite a dating service for ideas — can at least encourage and enable ideas to meet more frequently and in larger groups.

The result of all this idea coupling and grouping and mutual insemination is a higher material standard of living for nearly every human being living in societies where ideas have sex with each other promiscuously.

If, in contrast, the coordination encouraged by synoptic naming is employed principally for predatory purposes, it’s certainly a curse. To the extent that synoptic names better enable marauders to coordinate their attacks on a local population, the local population’s economic production (and, of course, their standard of living) will fall. So, too, will the economic production of the marauders fall. The reason is that the greater ease of coordinating their marauding makes marauding, relative to producing, a more attractive option than before the synoptic names were adopted.

Obviously, the marauders need not be men literally on the move, raping and pillaging helpless locals. Marauders can instead be what Mancur Olson called “stationary bandits” — powerful pooh-bahs or other officials who (for whatever reason) enjoy the allegiance of organized groups of men specialized in using physical force. (These specialized groups are indeed overwhelmingly made up of men — mostly young men.) Each stationary bandit, be it an individual or a team, relies upon these groups to gather resources from the population and to suppress insurrection. The more synoptic are the names of roads, bridges, valleys, villages, and the like, the better able are stationary bandits and their troops to keep the local population in line.


We have here the classic tension between decentralization and centralization. And everyone, regardless of political viewpoint, should ponder this tension seriously.

For example, libertarians (of which I am one) are quick to applaud any obstacles to the state’s ability to oversee and govern the populace. But what to make of this report from Prof. Scott?

It is both striking and important to recognize how relatively little the pre-modern state actually knew about the society over which it presided. State officials had only the most tenuous idea of the population under their jurisdiction, its movements, its real property, wealth, crop yields, etc. Their degree of ignorance was directly proportional to the fragmentation of their sources of information. Local currencies and local measures of capacity (e.g., the bushel) and length (the ell, the rod, the toise) were likely to vary from place to place and with the nature of the transacting parties. The opacity of local society was, of course, actively maintained by local elites as one effective means of resistance to intrusions from above.

With the pre-modern state hamstrung by a lack of knowledge of the peoples and regions under its domain, why didn’t individual freedom reign and capitalism burst forth before the modern state emerged with its improved abilities to monitor and control its subjects?

There are plausible, libertarian-friendly answers to this question. For instance, individuals might have been restrained from acting entrepreneurially by cultural taboos or by religious beliefs. Nevertheless, the fact remains that de facto decentralization of power — de facto inability of the state to impose its will, at will, across its entire domain — is obviously not a sufficient condition for freedom and entrepreneurial capitalism to take root and blossom.

Even the most ardent libertarian must keep an open mind on this matter. Perhaps the emergence of the modern state did, in fact, play a positive role in paving the way for the capitalist wealth explosion that began in 18th-century Europe. Nation-states’ standardization of language, weights, and measurements, information on ownership of real property, and knowledge about the destination of roads might not have been necessary to help spark the Industrial Revolution; that is, it might have been possible for such standardization to emerge through purely private actions (in much the same way that private railroads created “standard time” zones in Canada and the United States). But it surely seems to be untrue that a state growing in both scope and power necessarily diminishes the prospects for entrepreneurial capitalism to take hold and bloom.

Markets are always opportunistic and never ideological. If the state, for whatever reason, takes steps that reduce the costs of creating or serving markets, entrepreneurs respond. Think of how credit card companies, banks, and many other private firms use Americans’ Social Security numbers as a reliable and standard means of identifying individuals. My Social Security number improves my ability to get credit from strangers. Keeping track of the whereabouts and behaviors of “Don Boudreaux” would be a much more challenging task than keeping track of the whereabouts and behaviors of the person who must, whenever he seeks a new line of credit, reveal his unique nine-number identification code. Scholars who study countries that fail to develop — such as many countries in sub-Saharan Africa — often note the absence of such standardized, reliable identifiers of individuals.

A thoroughly impersonal string of numerals (and what is more impersonal than being identified by a string of Arabic numerals assigned to me at birth by the state?!) enables strangers to cost-effectively gauge relevant aspects of my personality, such as my proclivity to pay my debts on time.

Does this advantage of Social Security outweigh its costs (the reality and size of which I believe are awesome)? I’m tempted to say no, but, honestly, I don’t really know. How do we weigh the higher taxes that Social Security saddles Americans with against the benefits of widespread, impersonal, and highly liquid consumer credit markets that use Social Security numbers as reliable “names” for all Americans seeking credit?

All I can do — all that anyone can do — is to speculate. So I speculate that as the demand for consumer credit rose over the past several decades, along with improvements in technologies for tracking debtors, some clever entrepreneur would have devised something akin to today’s Social Security numbers for use by private creditors to assess the creditworthiness and to track the behaviors of debtors and potential debtors. (Or perhaps the ideas of several clever entrepreneurs would have had sex with each other in order to conceive a usable means of identifying credit customers.)

Consumer credit markets might well have become as deep and as sound — or even deeper and more sound — in the alternative world that I speculate about above as those markets are today in actuality. If so, this benefit of standardized identification would have been secured without the horrible mess that is the Social Security system’s distorting taxes and looming bankruptcy. But that Social Security numbers are among the sort of synoptic “names” that Scott so intriguingly discusses is a fact that mustn’t be lost sight of.

James Scott’s fact-filled essay offers much food for non-standard thought!

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • The Trouble with the View from Above by James C. Scott

    In his lead essay, James C. Scott reviews some of the key concepts from his seminal book Seeing Like a State. For a state to exercise its power across a large population, it must simplify, codify, and and regularize local practices. This process of flattening, or of making local practice “legible,” is not without costs. In the past, states have quite literally missed the forest – with many different valuable products, including food, shelter, medicines, and clothing – for the trees, or timber, that they contain. And that is not the least of states’ errors in this regard; even in the twentieth century, high modern building practices and management techniques have neglected local variation and local knowledge, often to the detriment of state and non-state actors alike. These faults are regular, predictable, and worthy of further study. Provocatively, Scott closes his essay with a warning: Large actors in a market will often find themselves seeing like a state, too.

Response Essays

  • Seeing Like a Movie Mogul by Timothy B. Lee

    Timothy B. Lee notes that many aspects of information technology policy are deeply implicated in the process of “seeing like a state.” Despite their rhetoric of private property, patents, copyrights, and other forms of intellectual property can act largely as transfers of wealth from ordinary people (be they peasants or consumers of digital media) to those who are most closely aligned to the state. This is a deeply illiberal result and one that libertarians should be especially wary of.

  • Perhaps. And Sometimes. by J. Bradford DeLong

    Brad DeLong sees both strengths and weaknesses in the state’s ability to survey civil society. With the help of an extended example from late Roman times, he argues that states can offer no protection against local disorder when they cannot see the localities and peoples they propose to protect.

    Yet a legible civil society is also prey to the state’s own “fits of ideological terror, or even clumsy thumb-fingeredness,” he argues, suggesting that legibility may be orthogonal to liberty. Ultimately, a state that fosters a robust civil society, while contenting itself with simply watching its growth, may be best of all, even if it is unlikely.

The Conversation