September 2010

James C. Scott’s 1999 book Seeing Like a State has had an enduring influence across the ideological spectrum, and particularly in an unexpected corner — among market liberals. Although Scott has described himself, somewhat cryptically, as a “crude Marxist, with the emphasis on ‘crude,’” it is clear that his work does not fit merely the Marxist paradigm. Though empirically based in peasant studies in Southeast Asia, Scott’s insights have applications throughout the modern industrial world, and for economies both planned and spontaneous. (Our banner art, depicting a rice paddy viewed from the air, pays tribute to this aspect of Scott’s career.)

Indeed, affinities can be seen between Professor Scott’s work and theorists as diverse as Jane Jacobs and Michel Foucault, to say nothing of Friedrich Hayek and the rest of the Austrian School of Economics. Scott’s thesis is startlingly simple: States can only exert their power on what they can know about. Knowing requires measuring, systematizing, and simplifying.

It requires, in other words, missing out on a lot of particular local data. Strategies of resistance to state power often take these gaps as their starting point, and problems with state rule often begin here as well. The state itself to a high degree may be said to run on legibility — the ability to know what’s really going on in a governed population or territory. Legibility, however, is in limited supply, and it comes at a cost.

Joining in our conversation this month are Donald J. Boudreaux, an economist at George Mason University; J. Bradford Delong, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley; and Timothy B. Lee, a scholar at Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University and a Cato Adjunct Scholar.


Print entire 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.