Perhaps. And Sometimes.

In 542 AD the late Roman (early Byzantine?) Emperor Justinian I wrote to his Praetorian Prefect concerning the army — trained and equipped and paid for by the Roman State to control the barbarians and to “increase the state.” Justinian was, Peter Sarris reports in his Economy and Society in the Age of Justinian, upset that:

certain individuals had been daring to draw away soldiers and foederati from their duties, occupying such troops entirely with their own private business…. The emperor… prohibit[ed] such individuals from drawing to themselves or diverting troops… having them in their household… on their property or estates…. [A]ny individual who, after thirty days, continues to employ soldiers to meet his private needs and does not return them to their units will face confiscation of property… “and those soldiers and foederati who remain in paramonar attendance upon them… will not only be deprived of their rank, but also undergo punishments up to and including capital punishment.

Justinian is worried because what is going on in the country he rules is not legible to him. Soldiers — soldiers whom he has trained, equipped, and paid for — have been hired away from their frontier duties by the great landlords of the Empire and employed on their estates and in the areas they dominate as bully-boys. One such great landlord was Justinian’s own sometime Praefectus Praetorio per Orientem Flavius Apion, to whom one of Flavius’s tenants and debtors, one Anoup, wrote:

No injustice or wickedness has ever attached to the glorious household of my kind lord, but it is ever full of mercy and overflowing to supply the needs of others. On account of this I, the wretched slave of my good lord, wish to bring it to your lordship’s knowledge by this present entreaty for mercy that I serve my kind lord as my fathers and forefathers did before me and pay the taxes every year. And by the will of God… my cattle died, and I borrowed the not inconsiderable amount of 15 solidi…. Yet when I approached my kind lord and asked for pity in my straits, those belonging to my lord refused to do my lord’s bidding. For unless your pity extends to me, my lord, I cannot stay on my ktema and fulfill my services with regard to the properties of the estate. But I beseech and urge your lordship to command that mercy be shown to me because of the disaster that has overtaken me…

The late Roman Empire as Justinian wished it to be would consist of (a) slaves, (b) free Roman citizens (some of whom owned a lot of land), (c) soldiers, (d) bureaucrats, and (e) an emperor. The slaves would work for their masters. Slaves along with their citizen masters and non-slaveholding citizens would farm the empire (some of the citizens owning their land, some renting it). All would be prosperous and pay their taxes. And the emperor would use the taxes to pay the soldiers who dealt with the Persians, the Huns, the Goths, and the Vandals; to fund the building of Hagia Sophia and other works of architecture in Constantinople; and to promote the true faith and extirpate heresy. If the countryside were legible to him, that is how things would be–slaves and citizens in their places, landlords and tenants in their mutually beneficial contractual relationships, all prosperous and all paying their taxes to support the empire.

But Justinian knows very well that the countryside is not legible to him. The contracts that Flavius Apion makes with his tenants are made under the shadow of the threat that if Flavius Apion does not like the way things are going he will send a bucellarius to beat you up. Anoup is not pointing out to Flavius Apion that their landlord-tenant relationship is a good thing and that keeping him as a tenant rather than throwing him off the land for failure to pay the rent is in both their interests. Instead, Anoup is calling himself a slave (which he is not). Anoup is calling Flavius Apion a lord (which he is not supposed to be). Anoup is appealing to a long family history of dependence of himself and his ancestors on the various Flavii Apionoi and Flavii Strategioi of past generations. Justinian thinks that things would be better served if the countryside were properly legible to him and he could force reality to correspond to the legal order of slaves and citizens, tenants and landlords interacting through contract, and taxpayers. Flavius Apion would prefer that the order be one of proto-feudalism: that all the Anoups know and understand that they are at his mercy, and that the emperor is far, far away. And we don’t know what Anoup thinks. We do know that it does not sound as though he experiences the lack of legibility of the countryside to the emperor and his state as a full and complete liberation. And we do know that the Emperor Justinian was gravely concerned about the transformation of his soldiers into bucellarii, into the dependent bully-boys of the landlords–both because it meant that they were not on the borders where they belonged and because it disturbed what he saw as the proper balance of power in the countryside and what he saw as the emperor’s justice.

Justinian’s big (and to him insoluble) problem was that the Flavius Apion whose bully-boys beat up his tenants when they displeased was the same Flavius Apion who headed Justinian’s own bureaucracy.

Thus when James C. Scott speaks of how local knowledge and local arrangements having the ability to protect the people of civil society from an overmighty, blundering state, I say “perhaps” and I say “sometimes.”

It is certainly the case that the fact that Sherwood Forest is illegible to the Sheriff of Nottingham allows Robin of Locksley and Maid Marian to survive. But that is just a stopgap. In the final reel of Ivanhoe the fair Rebecca must be rescued from the unworthy rogue Templar Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert (and packed offstage to marry some young banker or rabbi), the Sheriff of Nottingham and Sir Guy of Gisborne must receive their comeuppance, the proper property order of Nottinghamshire must be restored, and Wilfred must marry the fair Rowena–and all this is accomplished by making Sherwood Forest and Nottinghamshire legible to the true king, Richard I “Lionheart” Plantagenet, and then through his justice and good lordship.

A state that makes civil society legible to itself cannot protect us from its own fits of ideological terror, or even clumsy thumb-fingeredness. A state to which civil society is illegible cannot help curb roving bandits or local notables. And neither type of state has proved terribly effective at constraining its own functionaries.

In some ways, the “night watchman” state — the state that enables civil society to develop and function without distortions imposed by roving bandits, local notables, and its own functionaries, but that also is content to simply sit back and watch civil society — is the most powerful and unlikely state of all.

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

  • Promiscuous, Productive Ideas by Donald J. Boudreaux

    Donald J. Boudreaux considers the upside of widely legible information. While local knowledge and local resistance strategies may be lost, the ability of entrepreneurs to collaborate with one another over long distances expands. Ideas translate more easily and can more easily encounter other ideas, leading to innovation. Although some libertarians may find it uncomfortable, the rise of the modern state with its standardization procedures may have sped the process along, helping the Industrial Revolution to take place. Boudreaux cites the Social Security number as a threatening-but-useful example of state-based legibility co-opted for commercial purposes.

  • 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.

The Conversation