Letters to the Editor: Jacob T. Levy on Seeing Like a State

Editors’ note: Political theorist Jacob T. Levy of McGill University sends us his thoughts on this month’s discussion, which we are pleased to share in full.

I begin with a few words of unembarrassed admiration. James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, from which his essay is largely drawn, is one of the most important books in political science of the past twenty years (rivaled by the recently published companion volume, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, much of which could have been called The Art of Not Being Seen by States.) It is the only work of professional political science that I normally use in my introductory course in political theory, and I think that we political theorists will still be some time in fully incorporating its lessons.

I am also among the book’s libertarian and Hayekian admirers, of whom there have been many since the book was first published. I think that we libertarians, too, will be some time in fully incorporating its lessons. In this essay I’d like to point toward some of these. Since Scott writes not primarily as a political theorist and not at all as a libertarian, these may not be the lessons he intends, a point to which I will return at the end.

Adam Smith, generally thought of as the first systematic analyst of the market economy, was in my view the first major analyst of the modern state who saw it more or less completely: its permanent system of taxation and debt, its permanent expenditures on public works, its standing army, its bureaucratic structure, its colonial and imperial ventures, its complicated relationship with economic growth and prosperity, and in general the inevitability of a system of “police” or policy. This is not wholly distinct from his work as an analyst of the market; standing armies and professional bureaucracies are aspects of the division of labor, and the wealth of nations is a key determinant of their ability to fulfill their state projects. But it is partly distinct.

In the final edition of the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith wrote:

The man of system… is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it.

Here I interrupt Smith for two thoughts.

One is that James Scott’s later work owes a clear debt to Michel Foucault, in its appreciation of the deep connections between knowledge and power, and in its flexible understandings of the various ways of knowing. But the difference is as profound as the debt. In Foucault’s work, agency can be hard to locate anywhere, either in those on whom power is exercised or in those who exercise it. But nearly all of Scott’s work has been about locating agency everywhere. His is a social world in which the superordinate and the subordinate constantly constrain and reshape one another. To put it another way, Scott takes very seriously the idea that the pieces have their own principles of motion. Scott also, I think, takes more seriously than does F. A. Hayek the agency of the man of system himself. Scott’s planners do not sit idly in their failure to know all of the needed information. They go out into the social world to reshape (and sometimes break) it to make it more knowable. And they often, to a considerable extent, succeed: not in knowing everything, but in knowing much of what they need to for their administrative purposes.

The second is thought is that many readers of this essay at Cato Unbound — even those who have encountered these words of Smith’s before — will have thought immediately of the invisible hand (notice the “hand” metaphor in this passage!), of economic actors pursuing their own ends and the superiority of the market order to what the “man of system” could design, and of the insights of Hayek into spontaneous order. But the (mildly) famous “man of system” paragraph does not occur in a discussion of economics and markets, but in one of constitutional reform and state capacity-building. The “man of system” is contrasted with the better reformer who will leave unmolested “the great orders and societies, into which the state is divided” and “the confirmed habits and prejudices of the people.” While “he should consider” some such old privileges and habits “as in some measure abusive, he will content himself with moderating, what he often cannot annihilate without great violence.” Here is the conclusion of the indictment of the man of system:

It is upon this account, that of all political speculators, sovereign princes are by far the most dangerous. This arrogance is perfectly familiar to them. They entertain no doubt of the immense superiority of their own judgment. When such imperial and royal reformers, therefore, condescend to contemplate the constitution of the country which is committed to their government, they seldom see any thing so wrong in it as the obstructions which it may sometimes oppose to the execution of their own will. […] The great object of their reformation, therefore, is to remove those obstructions; to reduce the authority of the nobility; to take away the privileges of cities and provinces, and to render both the greatest individuals and the greatest orders of the state, as incapable of opposing their commands, as the weakest and most insignificant.

Hayek, I suppose, would have had no quarrel with this, but it is far from his central interests. Rather, in this critique of the state policymaker who will flatten society in the effort to make sure that his policies operate more smoothly and without interruption or resistance, we should see an antecedent of the work of James Scott.

To be sure, Smith’s concerns aren’t precisely Scott’s. Smith’s solicitude for the established privileged orders (presumably, though not explicitly, those that were to be overturned during the French Revolution) sounds rather more like what Brad DeLong worries about in Scott’s approach than it does like Scott’s own aims. And Smith was decidedly ambivalent about a case that might have been nearer to Scott’s heart: that of the Scottish highlanders, able to partly resist incorporation into the Scottish and then British states for so long thanks to their geography, and thereby shaping those states themselves. (The Art of Not Being Governed is in large part about the resistance to states and systems that is made possible by geography, specifically hills and mountains. The book is centered in Southeast Asia but makes mentions of parallel cases around the world — the Atlas Mountains, the Alps, the Appalachians, and the mountains of South America all appear as geographic spaces into which those who wish not to be governed or conquered have sometimes escaped to form rival social orders.) But the resemblance is real.

Moreover, Smith — unlike, say, the social contract theorists — understood that the state was a sometimes thing. Like Scott, Smith treated it as especially associated with settled agricultural and commercial societies. Unlike the social contract theorists, he did not think that that means agriculture was a prerequisite to social or political order and organizations; there were other social and political orders associated with other kinds of production.

This is one lesson that I think political theorists have yet to properly learn. Like our social contractarian forbears, we too easily imagine the modern state as natural and unquestionable. We moreover too easily assume away the information and knowledge problems that — in very different ways — have so preoccupied Hayek, Foucault, and Scott. We ask what states should do without wondering what they would have to know in order to do it, or how they would gain that knowledge, or what the effects would be of their attempts to do so. The combination of Seeing Like a State with The Art of Not Being Governed reveals a world in which states are particular kinds of social projects, not natural preconditions for social order; in which states’ knowledge and penetration of their societies comes in degrees; and in which states’ activities may create their own limits by provoking those being governed.

Another lesson applies mainly to political theorists critical of liberalism. The idea that freedom can mean freedom from the state, or freedom from state interference, has come in for widespread abuse over the past generation. Freedom, we are assured, is a civil condition, one that conceptually can only pertain within a political order, and thus a state — one that protects us from the kinds of domination Brad DeLong invokes. Freedom surely has nothing to do with keeping one’s own self out of state conscription, or one’s own goods away from the state’s tax-collector, or one’s own information away from the census-taker. (The conservative Canadian government has proposed to make the long-form census optional, repealing the rule that it must be filled out under threat of fines and imprisonment; most of my friends among Canadian social scientists are outraged, insisting that good quality policy depends on states being able to see their people very, very thoroughly.) Nothing in Scott’s work can settle the philosophical dispute about what freedom “really” means. But he does reveal a social world in which many — not only modern bourgeois capitalists guarding their incomes — have sought refuge from the state’s sight and jurisdiction, and have treated the freedom from state intrusion as a freedom worth having.

That said, there are crucially important lessons for libertarians, too. I think that libertarians have often joined the aspiration to this anti-statist, privacy-oriented freedom with Lockean property and contract theory. The union does not succeed. Locke’s state is a state with excellent maps, the better to settle disputes about land ownership. It is a state that knows who its members are, the better to call upon their financial and military resources. It is a fully functioning modern state. As Scott’s Yale colleague Steven Pincus shows in his recent book 1688, Locke and his revolutionary friends were state-builders and state-modernizers. They completed the work the Stuarts had begun of transforming Britain into a modern bureaucratic state, one in which trade and market-based wealth (rather than, as the Stuarts had hoped, land and agricultural wealth) would support military and imperial might. “Truck, barter, and exchange,” in Smith’s words, are everywhere; but the modern commercial economy is coeval with the modern state, and has always in part been a tool of state purposes. Libertarians need to better understand such entanglements of market and state. Those who have been influenced by Elinor Ostrom’s pioneering work on the variety of property regimes and social orders in the world can probably see these issues more clearly — but Ostrom’s lessons, like Scott’s, have to be allowed to reshape rather than merely add onto traditional libertarian habits of thought.

Here, I think, is a lesson for Scott as well. I suspect that Scott has been mildly embarrassed by the libertarian enthusiasm for Seeing Like a State, and since its publication he’s been at pains to be clearer than he was in the book that the market can also be a force of high-modernist social flattening. But he has not (that I’m aware of) pushed the thought very far, or told his readers much about when the market is that kind of force on its own, and when it is so when joined to state power. The cash nexus is a key instrument of market homogenization of the world; it makes all things fungible and countable by a common metric, with real costs and distortions to the complexity of the social world. But a recurring idea in Scott’s work has been that peasants are forced into the cash nexus by tax collectors, and by state officials (colonial and otherwise) who seek a common metric for extracting social resources. The great right angles of land in the American Midwest that Scott uses in Seeing Like a State to show that commercial agriculture is high modernist descend from the American imperial state projects of expropriation, resettlement, and conversion to agriculture from the Northwest Ordinance onward. Now, an indefinitely spreading market in land in itself homogenizes: it makes all land fungible. And the existence of a high market price on my land creates pressure for me to sell, at whatever cost to my local knowledge and customs. But it does not pressure me in the same way that American Indians were pressured by the Union Army, and the difference seems to me morally very significant.

I am sure that Scott is right that market and state alike can be homogenizing and reductionist forces. And I am sure that states making use of markets can be especially thoroughgoing homogenizers. But in his eagerness to confirm that he is no simple cheerleader for the market, I hope that Scott does not lose the interest in agency and sensitivity to power that marks his work. I hope that he too distinguishes moments of state-market fusion, with state actors deliberately flattening social facts in order to encourage and make use of commercial wealth, from market forces themselves, and that if he thinks the latter’s homogenizing effects as destructive as the former’s, that he is careful to explain, how, and when, and at whose hands — and with what consequences for those who resist the homogenization.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.