About this Issue

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.


Lead Essay

The Trouble with the View from Above

State naming practices and local, customary naming practices are strikingly different. Each set of practices is designed to make the human and physical landscape legible, by sharply identifying a unique individual, a household, or a singular geographic feature. Yet they are each devised by very distinct agents for whom the purposes of identification are radically different. Purely local, customary practices, as we shall see, achieve a level of precision and clarity—often with impressive economy—perfectly suited to the needs of knowledgeable locals. State naming practices are, by contrast, constructed to guide an official “stranger” in unambiguously identifying persons and places, not just in a single locality, but in many localities using standardized administrative techniques.

To follow the progress of state-making is, among other things, to trace the elaboration and application of novel systems which name and classify places, roads, people, and, above all, property. These state projects of legibility overlay, and often supersede, local practices. Where local practices persist, they are typically relevant to a narrower and narrower range of interaction within the confines of a face-to-face community.

A contrast between local names for roads and state names for roads will help illustrate the two variants of legibility. There is, for example, a small road joining the towns of Durham and Guilford in the U.S. state of Connecticut. Those who live in Durham call this road (among themselves) the “Guilford Road,” presumably because it informs the inhabitants of Durham exactly where they’ll get to if they travel it. The same road, at its Guilford terminus, is called, the “Durham Road” because it tells the inhabitants of Guilford where the road will lead them. One imagines that at some liminal midpoint, the road hovers between these two identities. Such names work perfectly well; they each encode valuable local knowledge, namely what is perhaps the most important fact one might want to know about a road. That the same road has two names, depending on one’s location, demonstrates the situational, contingent nature of local naming practices. Informal, “folk” naming practices not only produce the anomaly of a road with two or more names; they also produce many different roads with the same name. Thus, the nearby towns of Killingworth, Haddam, Madison, and Meriden each have roads leading to Durham, each of which the inhabitants locally call the “Durham Road.”

Now imagine the insuperable problems that this locally effective folk system would pose to an outsider requiring unambiguous identifications for each road. Let’s imagine, for example, that you have been in an automobile accident on the road between Durham and Guilford and are in danger of bleeding to death. You call 911 and tell them you need an ambulance and, when they ask your location, you tell them that you are on the Durham Road. The ambulance dispatcher would then have to ask, “Which Durham Road?” It is, thus, no surprise that the road between Durham and Guilford is re-incarnated on all state maps and designations as “Route 77”: a scheme whereby each state road is assigned a unique number in a potentially infinite series. There can now be no ambiguity about the road on which you are bleeding. Each micro-segment of that route, moreover, is identified by means of telephone pole serial numbers, milestones, and township boundaries. The naming practices of the state require a synoptic view, a standardized scheme of identification generating mutually exclusive and exhaustive designations.

All vernacular place names, personal names, and names of roads or rivers encode important knowledge. Some of that knowledge is a thumbnail history; for example Maiden Lane denotes the lane where five spinster sisters once lived, while Cider Hill Road is the road up the hill where the Cider Mill and orchard once stood. At one time, when the name became fixed, it was probably the most relevant and useful name for local inhabitants. Other names refer to geographical features: Mica Ridge Road, Bare Rock Road, Ball Brook Road. The sum of roads and place names in a small place, in fact, amounts to something of a local geography and history if one knows the stories, features, episodes, and family enterprises encoded within them.

For officials who require a radically different form of order, such local knowledge, however quaint, is illegible. It privileges particular knowledge over synoptic, standardized knowledge. In the case of colonial rule, when the conquerors speak an entirely different language, the unintelligibility of the vernacular landscape is a nearly insurmountable obstacle to effective rule. Renaming much of the landscape therefore is an essential step of imperial rule. This explains why the British Ordinance Survey of Ireland in the 1830s recorded and rendered many local Gaelic place names (e.g., Bun na hAbhann, Gaelic for “mouth of the river”) in a form (Burnfoot) more easily understood by the rulers.

Vernacular Communities as Illegible to Outsiders

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, and so forth. 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.

Having little synoptic, aggregate intelligence about the manpower and resources available to it, officials were apt either to overreach in their exactions, touching off flight or revolt, or to fail to mobilize the resources that were, in fact, available. To follow the process of state-making, then, is to follow the conquest of illegibility. The account of this conquest — an achievement won against stiff resistance — could take many forms, for example: the creation of the cadastral survey and uniform property registers, the invention and imposition of the meter, national censuses and currencies, and the development of uniform legal codes.

Given the variability of vernacular naming practices, the early modern state found it difficult even to identify particular individuals within a community without local cooperation. A banal example from a mediocre film, Witness, will illustrate the problem. In this film Harrison Ford plays a detective trying to track down a young boy who, he believes, witnessed a murder in bus station. The boy, he learns, comes from an Amish family. He arrives in the area with only a name and turns to that classical instrument of modern police work, the telephone directory. What is a telephone directory, after all, but an alphabetical listing of names, addresses, along with the unique number assigned to them, which serves in turn as the means of contacting them. But the Amish do not use phones, and he is stymied. He knows the last name (patronym) of the boy, but, it turns out that, as a relatively closed community, many Amish share common last names (e.g. Hoover, Boop). Again he is at an impasse. The success of his investigation, and the love interest in the film, turns on his enlisting the cooperation of the boy’s mother (played by Kelly McGillis). The point is that when confronted with an illegible, vernacular community such as the Amish, an outsider, and by extension the state, can only navigate with the help of a “local tracker” willing to share his or her knowledge. Having no other independent, reliable compass, the outsider is liable to be manipulated by that local tracker.

The permanent patronym, which most Westerners have come to take for granted, is in fact a comparatively new phenomenon. The invention of permanent inherited patronyms was, along with the standardization of weights and measures, uniform legal codes, and the cadastral land tenure survey, a vital technique in modern statecraft. It was, in nearly every case, a state project designed to allow officials to identify unambiguously the majority of its citizens. The armature of the modern state: tithe and tax rolls, property rolls, conscription lists, censuses, deeds, birth, marriage and death certificates recognized in law were inconceivable without some means of fixing an individual’s identity and linking him or her to a kin group. The permanent patronym was, in effect, the now long superseded precursor to modern photo-ID cards, passports, fingerprints, personal identification numbers, fingerprints, iris scans, and, finally DNA typing.

Until at least the fourteenth century, the great majority of Europeans did not have permanent patronyms. An individual’s name was typically his given name, which normally would suffice for local, vernacular. If something else were required, a second local designation was added indicating (in the English case), say, occupation (smith, miller, baker), geographical location (edgewood, hill), the father’s given name (in Jewish and Middle Eastern practice preceded by “ben” “ibn” “bin” or in the Celtic case preceded by “O’”, “Mc”, “Ap” or, as in the French case, simply appended, as hypothetically with Victor (son of) Hugo) or a personal characteristic (strong, short, doolittle, fair, newcomb). These secondary designations, however, were not permanent surnames, they did not generally survive their bearers.

The acquisition of last names is, in fact, an exceptionally sensitive measure of the growing reach of the state. The census [or catasto] of the Florentine state in 1427 was an audacious (and failed) attempt to rationalize the administration of revenue and manpower resources by recording the names, wealth, residences, land-holdings, and ages of the city-state’s inhabitants. At the time, virtually the only Tuscan family names were those of a handful of great families [e.g., Strozzi] whose kin, including affines, adopted the name as a way of claiming the backing of a powerful corporate group. The vast majority were identified reasonably unambiguously by the registrars, but not by personal patronyms. They might list their father and grandfather (e.g., Luigi, son of Paulo, son of Giovanni) or they might add a nickname, a profession, or a personal characteristic. It is reasonably clear that what we are witnessing, in the catasto exercise, are the first stages of an administrative crystallization of personal surnames. And the geography of this crystallization traced, almost perfectly, the administrative presence of the Florentine state. While one-third of the households in the city declared a second name, the proportion dropped to one-fifth in secondary towns, and then to a low of one-tenth in the countryside. The small, tightly knit vernacular world had no need for a “proper name”: such names were, for all practical purposes, official names confined to administrative life. Many of the inhabitants of the poorest and most remote areas of Tuscany — those with the least contact with officialdom — only acquired family names in the seventeenth century. Nor were fifteenth-century Tuscans in much doubt about the purpose of the exercise; its failure was largely due to their foot-dragging and resistance. As the case of Florence illustrates, the naming project, like the standardization of measurements and cadastral surveys, was very much a purposeful state mission.

Western state-making in the seventeenth and eighteenth imposed permanent patronyms as a condition of citizenship. It became well nigh universal with the exception of Iceland which, for folkloric reasons in most cases, mandates the old Norse system (i.e. Magnus Ericson, Katrin Jónsdóttir). The telephone directory there lists subscribers by given name and occupation. Nations such as Iran, Turkey, and Thailand that have imposed permanent patronym as a state project in the twentieth century have until comparatively recently organized the phonebook alphabetically by given name. The imposition of permanent, anglicized patronyms on indigenous peoples of North America coincided, in the United States, with the issuance of property deeds connected to efforts to seizing the bulk of tribal lands, and in Canada among the Inuit, with interventions by the welfare and health bureaucracies. Both episodes make for a reading that is filled with equal parts of hilarity and melancholy.[1] Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia and much of the Middle East have not adopted permanent patronyms but now have moved to more modern technologies of personal identification.

Legibility and Power

The quest for legibility, when joined to state power, is not merely an “observation.” By a kind of fiscal Heisenberg principle, it has the capacity the change the world it observes. The window and door tax established in France under the Directory and abolished only in 1917 is a striking case in point. Its originator must have reasoned that the number of windows and doors in a dwelling was almost perfectly proportionate to the dwelling’s size. Thus a tax assessor need only walk around the house counting the windows and doors to estimate its size. As a simple expedient, it was a brilliant stroke, but not without consequences. Peasant dwellings were subsequently designed or renovated with the formula in mind so as to have as few apertures as possible! While the fiscal losses could be recouped by raising the tax per opening, the effects on the long term health of the rural population lasted for than a century.

The window and door tax illustrates something else about “state optics”; they achieve their formidable power of resolution by a kind of tunnel vision that brings into sharp focus a single aspect of an otherwise far more complex and unwieldy reality. This very simplification makes the phenomenon at the center of the field of vision more legible and hence more susceptible to careful measurement and calculation. Combined with similar observations, an overall, aggregate, synoptic view of a selective reality is achieved, making possible a high degree of schematic knowledge, control and manipulation.

The Invention of Scientific Forestry

I found this process strikingly evident in the invention of scientific forestry in 18th-century Prussia and Saxony. An abbreviated account of forest “science” can serve both as a model for processes of state-simplification as well as the advantages and disadvantages it entails.[2] The lens, as it were, for this simplification was “cameral science”: the efforts to rationalize the revenue of the princely states. To that end, the forests were reconceptualized as streams of salable commodities, above all so many thousands of board feet of timber and so many cords of wood fetching a certain price. The crown’s interest we resolved through its fiscal lens into a single number representing the revenue yield that might be extracted annually from the domainal forests. The truly heroic simplification involved here is most evident in what was left out of this utilitarian and minimalist conception of the forest. Missing were all those trees, bushes, and plants holding little or no potential for crown revenue. Missing as well were all those parts of trees, even revenue-bearing trees, which might have been of great use to the population but whose value could not easily be converted into fiscal receipts. Here I have in mind foliage and its uses as fodder and thatch, fruits and nuts as food for people, domestic animals, and game. Twigs and branches as bedding, fence posts, hop poles, and kindling; bark and roots for making medicines and for tanning; sap for resins, and so forth.

From a naturalist’s perspective, nearly everything was missing from the state’s narrow frame of reference. Gone was the vast majority of flora: grasses, flowers, lichens, mosses, mushrooms, shrubs, and vines, Gone too, were reptiles, birds, amphibians, fish, and innumerable species of insects. Gone were most species of fauna, except for the large game integral to the aristocratic hunt.

The utilitarian state could, quite literally, not see the real existing forest for the (commercial) trees. New techniques of measurement were developed. Representative samples of the forest were designated; five classes of tree size (Normalbaüme) were specified, the timber yield of each was estimated using the cone-volume principles of solid geometry, and a complete census of a representative section was carried out to determine the distribution of trees by size class. This knowledge, coupled with careful assumptions about rates of growth made possible the tables from which the scientific forester devised a plan of extraction based on what was assumed to be the maximum sustainable yield.

It is, however, the next logical step in German scientific forestry that commands our attention. That step was to attempt to create through careful seeding, planting and cutting, a redesigned forest that was easier to count, manipulate, measure, and assess. Thus was born the modern, “production” forest: a mono-cropped (Norway spruce or Scotch pine), same-age, timber-farm planted in straight rows. The very uniformity of the forest vastly simplified its management and exploitation. Forestry crews could follow a few simple rules for clearing the underbrush, trimming and fertilizing; the mature trees of comparable girth and length could be felled into the alleys and marketed as homogeneous units to logging contractors and timber merchants. For nearly a century, during which German scientific forestry as a codified discipline became the world standard, the “production forest” was a resounding success in terms of steady yields at low cost.

Redesigning the forest as a “one-commodity machine,” however, had, in the long run, catastrophic consequences for forest health and production. The mono-cropped, same-age forest was far more vulnerable to disease, blight, and storm damage. Its simplicity and formal order, together with the elimination of underbrush, deadfalls and litter dramatically reduced the diversity of the flora, insect, mammal, and bird populations so essential to soil building processes. Once the soil capital deposited by the old-growth forest had been depleted, the new forest entered a period of steep decline in growth and production. The term “Waldsterben” entered the vocabulary of modern forestry science and led, in turn, to huge outlays for fertilizers, rodenticides, fungicides and insecticides as well as efforts to artificially reintroduce birds, insects and mammals that had disappeared. By redesigning the complex and poorly understood ecology of the old-growth forest as a veritable wood-fiber farm and bracketing everything else, scientific forestry had destroyed a vernacular forest and a host of ecological processes that came back to haunt it.


The example of scientific forestry is meant here as a signal and cautionary example of the dangers of the forms of simplification typical of states and large bureaucratic organizations. In Seeing Like a State, I developed several examples in considerable detail: the imposition of uniform land tenure and cadastral surveys on vernacular forms of land tenure; the imposition of uniform legal codes on vernacular customs, the replacement of dialects with a national language, the design (or redesign) of abstractly planned cities (e.g. Brasilia) compared to “vernacular” unplanned towns, the forced resettlement of peasants and pastoralists in poor countries compared to “vernacular” movement and settlement, agricultural collectivization compared with small-holder mixed farming, and, finally, the difference between praxis or vernacular knowledge on the one hand and epistemic knowledge on the other. The emphasis, throughout, is on the processes whereby hierarchical organizations, of which the most striking example is the state, create legible social and natural landscapes in the interest of revenue, control, and management.

Intervention in society (or nature) for whatever purpose (e.g. delivering welfare benefits to those with particular disability or keeping watch on political enemies) requires creating the mapping or optics necessary to legibility. In Seeing Like a State, and as a student of politics, I concentrate on state-making and government. Nevertheless, as I endeavor to make clear, large-scale capitalism is just as much an agency of homogenization, uniformity, grids, and heroic simplification as the state, with the difference that, for capitalists, simplification must pay. The profit motive compels a level of simplification and tunnel vision that, if anything, is more heroic that the early scientific forest of Germany. In this respect, the conclusions I draw from the failures of modern social engineering are as applicable to market-driven standardization as they are to bureaucratic homogeneity.


[1] “The Production of Legal Identities Proper to States: The Case of the Permanent Family Surname.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 44(1) January 2002, pp.4-44.

[2] In abbreviating, of course, I simplify as well.

Response Essays

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!

Seeing Like a Movie Mogul

In his lead essay, James Scott writes about the efforts of German foresters to create “a redesigned forest that was easier to count, manipulate, measure, and assess,” and throughout Seeing Like a State, he uses this as a metaphor for various state projects to reshape the complex, messy world to make it more susceptible to centralized measurement, control, and expropriation. Scott describes how states made modern statecraft possible by forcing unruly peasants to conform to state-defined names, weights, measures, and especially property rules, so that they could efficiently be taxed, regulated, and conscripted. I’m struck by the parallels between this process and the efforts of today’s incumbent media and software firms to domesticate the rapidly changing world of high technology. The big difference is that this time, the centralizers are on the defensive.

The great media technologies of the 20th century, television, radio, and movies, were inherently centralizing. They had high fixed costs that could only be paid by large, hierarchical institutions, and the existence of these costs allowed the institutions to shape the opinions of millions of people. Similarly, the development of increasingly sophisticated, but very expensive, computing devices starting in the late nineteenth century aided centralization by enabling large institutions to efficiently manage ever-larger amounts of information.

The Internet and the microprocessor are reversing these trends, with profound social consequences. For most of the twentieth century, only a tiny minority of people had access to the means to distribute creative works to wide audiences. Now, anyone can do it for next to nothing, and the former gatekeepers are furious. Using misleading property rights rhetoric, they have lobbied for, and gotten, new legal privileges that make their respective markets more amenable to centralized control.

Consider Hollywood’s long-running conflict with the consumer electronics industry. In the early 1980s, Hollywood came one Supreme Court vote shy of outlawing the VCR, which it predicted (incorrectly, as it turned out) would devastate the movie industry. In 1998, the movie industry lobbied for the passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which gives copyright holders a legal veto over the design of media devices capable of playing their content.

Hollywood has used its authority under the DMCA to force consumer electronics manufacturers to comply with “digital rights management” schemes that are a digital embodiment of the kind of legibility-through-simplification project Scott describes in Seeing Like a State. Scott argues that a single-minded focus on timber yields in state forests tended to short-change other important values provided by the forest, such as kindling, wildlife, herbs, and scenery. Incumbent media firms have a similarly narrow view of their customers. They seek to reduce the infinite variety of ways customers can interact with creative works down to a handful of standardized, usually passive, activities that can be easily monitored, counted, and paid for.

Manufacturers wishing to produce devices capable of playing Hollywood content are required to sign a licensing agreement dictating in great detail how the devices must behave. In an effort to prevent unauthorized copying, DRM schemes attempt to enumerate all of the operations consumers are allowed to perform, and require devices to perform those—and only those—functions. This is why, for example, most DVD players don’t allow you to fast-forward through commercials; this behavior conflicts with Hollywood’s business model, and so Hollywood has compelled consumer electronics manufacturers to disable that feature when commercials are playing.

DVD players work fine for consumers who want to use them as Hollywood intended, and they make it somewhat less convenient to make illicit copies of Hollywood movies than it might otherwise be. But this achievement has come at the price of dramatically restricting the functionality of home video devices. For example, for over a decade consumers have enjoyed the freedom to “rip” their music CDs to their computers and portable devices, making possible the iPod revolution. Similar software has long been available for DVDs, but such software is illegal in the United States. And hardware manufacturers who offer products with that capability, such as “video jukebox” set-top boxes, face lawsuits under the DMCA.

A similar conflict is under way in the software industry. Software has traditionally been afforded copyright protection, which regulates literal copying of software code, but not patent protection, which covers broader classes of “inventions.” But beginning in the late 1980s, a series of court decisions gave the green light to patents on software. This development was initially greeted with alarm in the software industry. Patents, unlike copyrights, are susceptible to inadvertent infringement, in which one company accidentally develops software with functionality claimed by another firm’s patent. Bill Gates clearly understood the danger. In 1991, when Microsoft was still a relatively small company, he wrote a memo to his executives warning that if software patents are legalized, “some large company will patent some obvious thing” and use the patent to “take as much of our profits as they want.”

In Seeing like a State, Scott describes how colonial officials in India, Vietnam, and elsewhere sought to expropriate the natives by imposing state-defined property boundaries. Over the last two decades, something similar has been happening in the software industry. Firms that agreed to participate in the patent system were recognized as “owners” of broad and arbitrarily defined “technologies,” and could use that ownership to extract rents from those who did not participate. Although they were initially skeptical, large firms discovered that patents made their tumultuous industry more legible and predictable, by transforming a rapidly changing technological ecosystem into series of discrete, bureaucratically defined “technologies” that can be bought, sold, licensed, and put on balance sheets. The fact that these “technologies” have only the most tenuous relationship to what the engineers were doing was of little concern as long as the patents continued generating licensing fees. After all, colonial officials didn’t much care if the property lines on their maps reflected actual or historical cultivation patterns so long as someone was paying the required taxes.

So software firms began building patent portfolios. As Gates and other skeptics predicted, software patents have become so broad and numerous that it’s almost impossible to build any large software product without infringing some. Today, most software companies don’t even try to avoid infringement. Instead, they simply assume they will infringe and stockpile patents of their own to deter anyone from suing them.

By the dawn of the twenty-first century, Microsoft had built a substantial patent portfolio of its own. Now a “large company” itself, it was concerned free software products were cannibalizing the market for some of Microsoft’s own proprietary products. And so Microsoft began threatening vendors who offered operating systems based on the free Linux kernel with patent litigation. Although Microsoft has declined to produce a specific list of patents being infringed, the sheer size of Microsoft’s patent portfolio and the likelihood of inadvertent infringement makes the threat credible. And, of course, Microsoft now lobbies in favor of patents on software.

Proprietary software firms are, understandably, focused on maximizing the number of copies they sell. But the licensing terms required to ensure that each user pays for his or her copy the has a side effect of undermining three of what Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman calls the four software freedoms: the freedom to use, study, share, and modify software. Proprietary software offers customers the first freedom—use—for a fee, but the other three freedoms are typically not available at any price, because they conflict with the vendor’s business model. Ordinary consumers may not care about these other freedoms, since they lack the knowledge and skills to take advantage of them. But many computer programmers care about them quite a bit, because they make the software we use much more useful. It allows us to fix bugs, add new features, and diagnose compatibility problems. And as users of Firefox can appreciate, preserving these freedoms for geeks often has spillover benefits for the general public.

Once again, a myopic focus on the cash-for-copies business model has led to the creation of technology that’s dramatically less useful than it could be. Just as German foresters ignored uses of the forest that could not produce revenue for the crown, so software firms’ focus on selling copies of software has led them to ignore uses of software that cannot be easily “monetized.” Some of the most sophisticated users of software have become increasingly dissatisfied with this arrangement and have begun building their own alternative base of software, called free software, that is not so limited. You might say that free software is the natural forest to proprietary software’s “production” forest.

In both of these disputes, incumbents have used the rhetoric of property rights to justify their efforts to seize control over wealth they did not create. Hollywood didn’t invent the Blu-Ray player, flat-screen TVs, or other innovations, but under the banner of property rights they have demanded, and gotten, a veto over the evolution of these technologies. Similarly, patent litigation in the software industry is rarely about actual copying of a competitor’s code. It typically involves transferring wealth from firms that produce innovative products to firms that are adept at navigating the patent system. Framing these controversies as disputes over property rights has allowed Hollywood and the patent bar, respectively, to claim the high ground for what might otherwise be perceived as simple rent-seeking.

Because libertarians reflexively (and correctly) favor strong enforcement of property rights, we need to be careful about too credulously accepting the “property rights” frame for proposals to create or expand legal privileges. Such arguments can be found in a wide variety of fields, including gene patents, the recording industry, and spectrum policy. Clear and predictable property rules are a tremendous engine of economic growth and individual liberty. But Seeing Like a State reminds us that the creation of new property rights can sometimes be a process of expropriation, with the state inventing new rights to transfer wealth to parties with political power.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether the new property rights whose creation Scott describes in Seeing Like a State had positive consequences in the long run, but it’s hard to deny that some of the short-run consequences were deeply illiberal, transferring wealth from ordinary peasants to those who had the closest ties to the state. When large firms deploy the rhetoric of property rights in defense of creating new legal privileges for themselves, libertarians especially need to employ an appropriate degree of skepticism.

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.

The Conversation

Seeing Like a State: Best of the Blogs

This month we’ve been fortunate to have some very astute outside commentary on the discussion. Henry Farrell suggests that Seeing Like a State undermines Hayekian economics. Briefly, we face a tradeoff between homogenization of products, bringing economies of scale — and local knowledge, supposedly the engine of a laissez-faire economy:

[Friedrich] Hayek is remarkably incurious about the actual social processes through which markets work, and in particular the forms of standardization that are necessary to make long-distance trade work. I imagine Scott’s counterblast going something like this: It is all very fine to say that markets provide a means to communicate tacit knowledge, and it is even true of many markets, especially small scale ones with participants who know each other, know the product and so on. But global markets do not rely on tacit knowledge. They rely on standardization — the homogenization of products so that they can be lumped under the appropriate heading within a set of standard codified categories. Far from communicating tacit knowledge, the price system (and the codified standards that underlie it) destroys it systematically.

I think that this critique is hard for Hayekians to answer on their own terms. Hayek goes to some length to adumbrate economists for their failure to treat non-scientific and non-codified knowledge as important. If markets both distort production (by pushing towards products that can be standardized) and destroy knowledge (by lumping concrete things that are differentiated in important ways under abstract headings), then the Hayekian case for markets is at least qualified. One can still preserve the claim that modern markets preserve and communicate some aspects of non-codified knowledge. But one has to acknowledge that other forms of economic order can do this too (and at least under some circumstances may perhaps do it better, if Scott is to be believed).

To which Tyler Cowen replies:

I agree with the frustration about a lack of detail about markets. Nonetheless, I am more optimistic than this. Standardized products often fund a more general trade or communications infrastructure which the non-standardized products then piggyback upon. Think of funding a port with oil shipments (by the way, how many grades of crude are there?) but at the margin using it to trade strange toys as well. Alternatively, a highly standardized product can be communicating the (sometimes tacit) knowledge that liquidity and interchangeability and lots of direct competition matter more than does product diversity.

The Grossman-Stiglitz framework helps us think through the trade-off between the average and the margin. Let’s say that some trades shift into the more standardized, liquid market and out of the more idiosyncratic market. Some knowledge is lost. But at the margin, there is now a stronger incentive for information-gathering, or knowledge mobilization, in the less liquid market. It will be easier to beat the rest of the market (price is not much of a sufficient statistic) and so people will try harder.

This topic is related to the current controversy over whether swaps contract will be overly customized (wider spreads and harder to monitor and higher regulatory risk?) or overly standardized (more liquid but less useful?).

We weren’t able to determine exactly how many grades of crude oil there are, but it’s quite a few. A better example might be the elemental commodities, although for these it is difficult to see the value to the consumer of the lost producer-side local knowledge, aside from knowledge about externalities and titles. These though remain very important and are often the basis of competition in the elemental commodities markets.

Moving from information about commodities to information as a commodity, the Cato Institute’s Director of Information Policy Studies Jim Harper writes:

I stumbled across Scott when I was researching my book on identification policy, Identity Crisis. As Scott observes, naming systems for people have been altered over time from vernacular to formal, the latter serving the needs of governments and large institutions. The next step in the process is numbering (well underway, the Social Security number) and full-fledged national ID and possibly world ID systems. Such systems would be used to peg humans into their place in governmental, economic, and social machinery, obviously at a high cost to liberty and social mobility.

Twice in the paragraph above I used the passive voice to hide the actor. It was governments, of course, that pushed formal naming systems, but both governments and corporations will use our increasingly formalized and machine-processable naming systems to assign people their roles. Scott is far from a libertarian battler against government power, and he specifically disclaims having Hayekian aims in his book. This makes it all the more powerful and opens the door to interesting pathways of thought, parallels between corporate environmental destruction and government intervention in economic life, for example.

As always, your letters remain welcome. Send them to jkuznicki at cato dot org. Further feedback on this month’s issue is encouraged, and the four principals are invited to continue discussing through the rest of the month.

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.

Coordination vs. Coercion

Don Boudreaux makes an interesting point about the way standardization facilitates social cooperation and the division of labor. But I think it’s important to remember that the distinctive feature of the state-building projects James Scott describes wasn’t just standardization, but coercion. People were compelled to adopt new surnames, geographical indicators, property boundaries, and the like whether they liked it or not. And most of the time they didn’t like it, because it was obvious that the point of the exercise was to make the populace more amenable to centralized control.

Given how many of the standardized features of modern life have their origins in state-driven projects, it might seem like state compulsion is required to achieve large-scale standardization. But this is not so, as we have an example of an almost perfectly non-coercive standardization project: the Internet.

It’s true that the Internet’s early development was funded by the federal government, and the feds did encourage and subsidize Internet adoption within academia during the 1980s. But the Internet’s most explosive growth happened after the Internet was privatized during the 1990s. The vast majority of nodes on the Internet today joined the Internet after the network had become independent and self-financing. Millions of private organizations joined the Internet because they wanted access to the rapidly growing universe of content it offered.

The Internet offers its users an unprecedented degree of standardization and legibility. Every computer on the network (more or less) is identified by a unique string of 32 ones and zeros known as an IP address. The entire Internet has adopted the Domain Name System, a kind of online “yellow pages” that converts names like “cato.org” or “google.com” into 32-bit IP addresses. And layered on top of that is the Uniform Resource Identifier, or URI, which, as its name suggests, allows anyone in the world to uniquely identify any online resource, such as this blog post.

There’s one crucial difference between this system of legibility and the state-driven systems of legibility that are the focus of Seeing Like a State: the Internet makes it easy to find computers, people, blog posts, and the like, but only if they want to be found. Because there’s no central authority controlling access to the network or verifying that people are who they say they are, individuals on the Internet are free to maintain multiple independent identities or they can decline to identify themselves at all.

This is great for the “idea orgies” Boudreaux lauds, but as we might expect, it drives state officials crazy. There’s a perennial debate in tech policy circles about anonymity on the Internet. Law enforcement officials and assorted busybodies are perpetually complaining that the Internet’s anonymity-friendly architecture facilitates a wide variety of harms, including online harassment, illicit file-sharing, and the spread of child pornography. These critics regularly demand that the Internet be re-architected to facilitate centralized control, although they rarely have a clue about how to do it.

Thus we should be cautious about ascribing the beneficial effects of state-driven standardization projects to state compulsion. Once the state has compelled a nation’s citizens to adopt a standardized scheme, it’s not surprising that private parties begin to use that scheme for their own purposes. But if Boudreaux is right that standardization is economically beneficial, and I think he is, standardization schemes may very well have emerged spontaneously before too long.

And as we see in the case of the Internet, voluntary standardization schemes have a different character than externally imposed ones. Because people adopt them only when and to the extent they’re useful, they tend to be less useful for centralized, coercive projects such as tax collection.

We can see this dynamic at work in the contemporary debate over proposals for a national ID card. Currently, the United States has a de facto system of national identification that consists of the combination of your Social Security Number and state-issued driver’s license. This combination is perfectly adequate for most private interactions; the Social Security Number provides a globally unique identifier that almost everyone has, which can be used for credit checks and the like, and the driver’s license is a pretty good way to establish your identity. But the decentralized and minimalist character of this ad hoc system make it ill-suited for centralized, coercive state projects such as excluding undocumented workers from the labor market.

There has been a growing push to create a standardized national ID card and a national database that ties biometric information to peoples’ Social Security Numbers. Such proposals will do little or nothing to facilitate the kind of voluntary cooperation Boudreaux lauds in his response. Rather, their function is to enhance state control over the American people.

So Boudreaux is absolutely right that standardization begets cooperation, the division of labor, and more. But we should be careful about conflating standardization with coercive centralization. Some standardization projects are much more centralized, and centralizing, than others. State-driven projects are almost always centralizing projects, sometimes with a helpful side-effect of enabling “idea orgies.” In contrast, private-sector standardization projects are primarily information aphrodisiacs, and they can be designed to thwart centralized control.

Uncommonly Good Law

Timothy Lee’s distinction between state-enforced standardization and spontaneously ordered standardization is crucial. And all that Lee says on this point (and in his earlier essay in this thread at Cato Unbound) has earned my sincere applause.

Anyone who blogs at Café Hayek, as I do, can hardly question the marvelous reach and power of spontaneous ordering forces!

And anyone who has been so deeply influenced, as I have been, by the works of James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock can scarcely doubt that politicians and their appointees will abuse whatever powers they might exercise to bring about standardization. Centrally imposed standards will be created and used – as Lee correctly points out – for the good of the state. Only by happenstance will the good of the state correspond to the good of society.

Pondering this question calls to my mind English common law. Celebrated by Hayek (among many others) as a chief reason why England and her progeny, such as the United States, have been open and free societies, the common law’s very name suggests standardization. Common law.

At one level, the common law might be said to be the product of the English crown: after 1066, English monarchs understood that their Norman blood would be less disagreeable to their subjects if these subjects were allowed to keep their local customs. As long as these customs kept the populace productive (and, hence, taxable) — and as long as these customs posed no serious threat to the security of the crown — the crown courts adopted into law many of the customs and norms that spontaneously arose from the everyday actions of ordinary folk going about their daily lives. That is, with relatively few exceptions, the law in England was not designed; it emerged decentrally and was discovered by judges.

Common themes were discovered by the courts and were given surer form and clearer identity as these were enunciated and enforced over the years. But these common themes — the substantive rules of the common law — were mostly not the creation of the state.

In this light, I have always found Hayek’s distinction between “law” and “legislation” to be very helpful. Law is a set of (seldom rigid) rules — or principles — that are discovered by the courts; legislation is a set of much more rigid rules that are created and imposed consciously by the sovereign, often to achieve ends that serve the sovereign’s interests at the expense of the general population. (To this day I wince whenever I hear legislators described as “lawmakers.” They are not.)

So, in fact, what was common about the common law wasn’t so much its specific content as it was the procedure for that law’s discovery and enforcement. A sovereign, headquartered in London, was sufficiently wise (or prudent) to standardize through England only the procedure for discovering and enforcing law. The resulting specific laws thus were more attuned to the expectations and practices of ordinary people throughout the realm, and also not part of any master plan to micromanage English society.

This rather standard (!) summary of the history of the common law necessarily omits countless details, nuances, and qualifications. And in light of James Scott’s lead essay I now suspect that the English crown was more active than I’d previously thought at imposing throughout England centrally designed standards for the purpose of improving the crown’s ability to tax or to otherwise control its subjects for its own narrow goals.

Still, the common law historically emerged from Norman conquerors’ self-interested wish to extract as much tax revenue over time as possible from the English people, yet one happy result of this particular form of standardization was a system of law-making that allowed for greater personal freedom and, eventually, unprecedentedly rapid and widespread economic growth.

Of Hayek and Rubber Tomatoes

Henry Farrell writes that “Hayek argues that markets are superior because they allow the ‘dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess’ to be aggregated in a useful way.” He then faults Hayek for failing to acknowledge a key limitation of the price mechanism: its tendency to “destroy” knowledge in the process of defining standardized commodities. In attributing to Hayek the view that “markets are superior,” Farrell conspicuously fails to mention: superior to what? This omission allows Farrell to construct a curious straw man of Hayek’s views, suggesting that Hayek championed large-scale commodity markets over smaller-scale markets that employed more local knowledge. Although it’s possible Hayek staked out this position somewhere in his voluminous writings, it’s certainly nowhere to be found in the famous essay Farrell linked to.

That essay, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” critiques the tendency among economists to treat economic information as “given” to centralized decision-makers. He explains the working of the price system as a counter-example to this “high modernist” conceit. It’s true, of course, that the price mechanism selectively discards some knowledge in the process of aggregating and transmitting other knowledge. But this isn’t a special flaw of the price mechanism. It’s inherent to all economic processes that involve more than one human being. All economic actors transmit information to others in simplified, standardized ways that communicate the information they regard as most important and discard information they regard as less important. It’s true, of course, that some international commodity markets tend to be particularly ruthless in this respect, but I see no reason to interpret Hayek as championing this type of market in particular. The small-scale Italian tomato markets Farrell lauds here are markets, and Hayek’s arguments apply with at least as much force to them as they do to the international agricultural commodity markets Scott is criticizing.

Indeed, Hayek is quite explicit about the fact that the price mechanism is just one example of a bottom-up social institution that facilitates large-scale cooperation. Beginning with a line from Alfred North Whitehead, Hayek wrote:

“Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” This is of profound significance in the social field. We make constant use of formulas, symbols, and rules whose meaning we do not understand and through the use of which we avail ourselves of the assistance of knowledge which individually we do not possess. We have developed these practices and institutions by building upon habits and institutions which have proved successful in their own sphere and which have in turn become the foundation of the civilization we have built up. The price system is just one of those formations which man has learned to use (though he is still very far from having learned to make the best use of it) after he had stumbled upon it without understanding it.

Clearly, Hayek’s point is not that the price system is superior to other decentralized social institutions. Rather, he’s pointing out that all successful large-scale cooperative efforts involve standardization, which necessarily means discarding some potentially relevant knowledge in the process of codifying other knowledge deemed more important. The important question is not whether to standardize in this way, it’s deciding how, and how much to standardize. Too little standardization means missing out on opportunities for economies of scale and the division of labor. Too much standardization means discarding information that consumers actually care about, leading to the infamous rubber tomatoes of standardized agriculture. And the wrong kind of standardization—discarding important information while preserving trivial information—is doomed regardless of the degree of standardization.

What makes decentralized economic institutions powerful isn’t standardization but the possibility for competition among alternative standardization schemes. Rubber tomatoes create an entrepreneurial opportunity for firms to establish a more exacting tomato standard and deliver tastier tomatoes to their customers. In real markets, you see competition not only among individual firms but among groups of firms using alternative standards. Markets gradually converge on the standards that are best at transmitting relevant information and discarding irrelevant information. In contrast, when standards are set by the state, or by private firms who have been granted de facto standard-setting authority by government regulations, there is no opportunity for this kind of decentralized experimentation. Then the market is likely to be permanently stunted by the use of a standard that does a poor job of transmitting the information consumers care about most.

To return to the theme of my last post, this process of competitive standards-setting is by no means limited to the market setting. The web browsers we all used to retrieve this article conform to a variety of technical standards, including TCP/IP, HTTP, and HTML. Just as commodity standards work by making heroic simplifying assumptions about agricultural products, so Internet standards make heroic simplifying assumptions about the behavior of our computers and software. This suite of now-dominant protocols emerged from an intense process of inter-standard competition during the 1980s and 1990s. This competitive standardization process is not a market process—accessing a web page is not a financial transaction—but it is very much a Hayekian one.

So Farrell’s critique of Hayek strikes me as something of a straw man. To my knowledge, Hayek never claims that “markets are superior” to other bottom-up social processes such as those defended by Scott, Jane Jacobs, and others in their writings. Rather, he offered markets and the price mechanism as a particularly compelling example of the superiority of decentralized economic institutions over centralized, “high modernist” schemes for economic rationalization. Although Scott specifically declines to endorse Hayek’s policy agenda, I think Seeing Like a State is squarely within the Hayekian intellectual tradition.

Some Replies on Markets, Languages, and Law

I have been struck by both the quality and breadth of the responses to my essay and, it’s clear, to the argument in Seeing Like a State that lies behind it. In some cases, I am somewhat at a loss to reply inasmuch as I am not an economist, not a well-read libertarian, not a political philosopher, and not a specialist on intellectual property and freedom.

Given these handicaps, let me try to bundle together a few repetitive themes and at least try to clarify my position and, in some cases, to think through possibilities I had not addressed or envisaged in my essay or in the book.

Standardization and Power

I take the point that markets are inherently standardizing. I also take the point that knowledge is lost in the process and that there may be (even massive) gains in wealth and emancipation. As I point out in Seeing Like a State, the “invention” of the standardized French citoyen bearing equal rights in place of the medieval estates was surely a great emancipation though, as I also point out, it also made possible, for the first time, the conscription for Napoleon’s total war.

One might say that the commodity form of large-scale trade and capitalism is the locus classicus of standardization: the standard bushel of wheat or maize, the ingot of pig iron, the bolt of linen. More broadly, I would endorse Polanyi’s argument that the factors of production so central to classical economics, land and labor, are the “commodity names” for nature/the environment on the one hand and human life on the other. They enter classical economics only in their standardized form of “acres” “factory hands,” and so forth.

What would seem important to a libertarian, and not just a libertarian, is the way in which this standardization comes about and, in particular, the degree to which it is a coercive process. Judgments about coerciveness are, with some exceptions, not “either-or” questions but matters of degree. Let me take three examples along the spectrum: state-designated and created ethnicity, common law, and language.

In the case of state-designated ethnicity, the process is generally highly coercive: an official designation is made (even if it is originally a voluntary self-description) and then it is frozen and, depending on the circumstances, the “ethnic” is then treated according to the regulations governing that category. Thus, when the Dutch arrived in Batavia, on the island of Java, they discerned a group whom they called the “Chinese.” The people in question do not describe themselves in this way. Their affiliations were fluid, and their customs bled imperceptibly into the range of cultures around them. Nevertheless, the Dutch, in their Linnaean mania, erected a Chinese zone, codified what they take to be its customary law, set up courts and schools and police exclusively for the Chinese, and appointed customary Chinese headmen. Lo and behold, after 60 years or so of being funneled into ethnic traffic patterns, a once largely fictitious category became a lived identity. It was essentially a coercive, albeit slow-motion process of state-created ethnic-fabrication that, at the end of the day, appears as an embraced identity. Juridical racial hierarchies, as a group-creation process — as found historically in South Africa and the United States — operate essentially this way.

The standardization of common law seems to me to be an intermediate case. It seems more open to innovation and adjustment from county magistrates, practice, and custom, although, over time, as precedents and decisions accumulate, it becomes largely a received codification for subsequent generations, a codification open to adjustment only at the margin. And, of course, the source of innovation is largely confined to elites (even if local) and not the tenants and laborers, let alone the proletariat.

Language, it seems to me, is perhaps the best example, and one to which Hayek himself referred, of a relatively un-coercive standardization. The grammarians, the Academies, and the literati may aspire to control language use but are generally unable to do so. The spoken language especially remains open to all sorts of innovations which, if found expressive or useful, “go viral” and become part of the repertoire of speakers. Language is not, of course, anything like a pure democracy but for something so standardized it is a pretty good model of open-source software that all speakers may use and contribute to. Libertarians, and not just libertarians, might aim for institutions that were more like languages and less like markets.

Which Brings Me to Markets

I begin in an odd location: banditry and coercion — the plunderers Brad DeLong refers to. I am more familiar with water-borne banditry, that is, with the early Malay States which were essentially piratical enterprises. As I see it, they began vying with other small bands of pirates to make themselves master of a choke point on a navigable river or strait in order to control the trade. Once one band had established its supremacy (ignoring the internal politics within the band) it would plunder the trade. The leaders understood, or soon came to understand, that if they did not limit their plunder they risked seeing the trade circumvent them by taking another route or, if there was none, drying up altogether. The heads of the petty Malay statelets therefore quickly became a protection racket, exacting a toll from the passing trade and defending their monopoly profits and merchants from competitors. They might even encourage trade by competitive exactions and treating all merchants even-handedly. The early maritime state, in its elementary forms, looks very much like this toll collecting state. The typical pattern of early state expansion was for a very successful chiefly state of this kind to absorb its smaller neighbors, appointing their chiefs, in effect as governors in return for occasional tribute. Why not; were they not already collecting taxes and governing the area, like a rudimentary state? The subsidiary chiefs themselves then became the subject of a toll-collecting protection racket with the threat that if they failed to deliver tribute, they would be driven out by their state-making patrons.

I want to make the argument that, with the key exceptions that capitalist enterprises actually produce goods and services and often fail to establish effective monopolies, much of their behavior is comparable. Although they may arise in a competitive setting –but let us never forget that the great aristocratic landed fortunes of England were made by office-holding not trade — capitalist firms are constantly striving through collusion, lobbying, legal maneuvering, and violence to establish monopoly positions. They strive mightily to transform uncertain and often small profits into rents guaranteed by force, law or influence at the enforcement stage (i.e. corruption).

For pirates, narco-statelets, and early capitalism (e.g. Rockefeller) the currency convertible to rents was force, either the buying of police protection or paramilitary forces operating often with the complicity of the state. In more mature democracies, such brute force has been replaced by the influence on the media, on legislation, on regulatory agencies, on courts, and on elected officials made possible by the accumulation of well nigh permanent disparities in wealth and purchased expertise. This is what Antonio Gramsci pointed to in his analysis of hegemony and why universal suffrage did not bring about the revolution by peaceful means in Italy.

Where this disparity in financial wherewithal is great, it accomplishes the same alchemy as successful piracy: it turns a competitive market of price-takers into an oligopoly of price-givers who, one might say, purchase their secure rent-seeking opportunities by their enormous advantages as purchasers of the policies they require. Yes, they quarrel among themselves (even Lenin saw that) and their advantages can be temporarily nullified by economic crisis or war. But the tendency toward the accumulation of these strategic, positional resources by wealth and property holders in mature democracies seems undeniable.

The market in such circumstances is, to be sure, as Hayek observed, still a form of tacit coordination that could not conceivably be achieved by imperative coordination. But the positional advantage of some players is so overwhelming and entrenched that the deck is stacked against the vast majority of economic actors and citizens. As a colleague of mine is fond of saying, the political system is run for the benefit of the top 15% of income earners (OK, let’s even say 20%) and the trick of conservative consolidation is to use some of the resources of this elite 20% to make certain that the next thirty percent of the income earners fear the bottom 50% more than they envy or resent the top 20%. Judging from public policy since at least the Reagan era, this political hegemony is secure and its influence on legislation is further buttressed by massive lobbying at the regulatory stage.

Were I a libertarian, I think I would find it hard to defend a market so skewed by large and seemingly permanent structural inequality. It makes a sham of the ideal of free, voluntary contracts when the playing field is so unequal. To take an extreme example, someone in India who decides to sell a kidney or a child to a wealthy family in order to buy food is, in the strictest sense, making a voluntary choice. But who would not deplore the structural inequalities that made such desperate choices necessary?

The Hayekian case for the petty bourgeoisie, in competitive markets, is a strong one; it looks more like the case of language as sketched above. I am not a Hayek scholar but would ask those who are what he has to say about cases where disparities in power and influence turn choice and mutual coordination into something more akin to “an offer on can’t refuse.”

Digital Media and Enclosure

In the case Timothy Lee discusses, of media and the digital revolution, I wonder if the concept of “enclosure” might not serve us well as a metaphor. The original enclosures in England were brought about by legal acts of Parliament (a body of substantial landholders, of course), then enforced on the ground by the police power and magistrates of the state. Are the large players in the media world not also identifying novel property rights and then, by dint of their grip on the legislative process and legal muscle, enclosing them so they yield reliable rents protected by law? As I understand it, this process has nothing to do with efficiency, let alone democracy. In addition to their political hegemony, the deep pockets of the large players (Microsoft, Amazon, Google) are such that they can simply buy out any upstart that might even remotely threaten their position. This pattern I gather is so understood that many startups are devised precisely to make themselves attractive to such a buyout.

Legibility Is Morally Neutral

Let me close with two points on which I am often misunderstood. I am not a defender of local knowledge and practice across the board. Such local practices may and often do include forms of oppression and unfreedom. It depends; or as Brad DeLong says, “sometimes.” Second, legibility is a capacity and, as such, is not morally worthy or unworthy in and of itself. It depends on the purpose for which it is used.