Sunday, February 22, 2009

Seeing Like a State

Seeing Like a State, by James C Scott

The book describes systematic partial or total failures of various "high modernist" government sponsored projects, including German "scientifically managed" forests, planned cities (especially Brasilia), collective farms in the Soviet Union, and agricultural "modernization" policy in Tanzania.

The faults of the central planners include an unwarranted love of grand scale for its own sake, a fondness for structures that look orderly (that is to say, show obvious regularity when seen from a distance), a tendency to consider a region as a producer of one particular product of uniform quality (and hence quantity produced being the sole criterion of success), planning based on abstract "average fields" that do not reflect actual local conditions, and contempt for the hard-won local knowledge of the people whose lives the planners presumed to direct.

The book is well worth reading for the details, but I think after consideration certain elements seem obvious. A central planner has to feel infinitely wiser than the people who will be subject to his decrees. If he felt only marginally superior, he would conclude that the advantage in perspective of actually being there on the ground would outweigh his slight edge in intelligence, and would have to get out of the central planing business. A central planner has to be willing to abstract away almost a huge amount of detail, otherwise planning becomes humanly impossible.

Certain plans seem particlarly boneheaded. For example, mandating separate residential districts, shopping districts, districts full of nothing but office buildings, etc obviously forces a lot of wasted extra travel over mixed use, and it's hard to see how it does anything else. Polycropping has numerous benefits over monocropping; the main advantage of monocropping is that it is better suited for mechanization. Forcing farmers to live in villages away from their fields wastes time in travel, and does little else.

The one area where I would fault Scott is that he seems to fully credit the intentions of the planners and of the regimes that forcibly impose their schemes as being fundamentally good, at least in cases where those regimes were democratically elected. I see no reason to believe this is true. If there was ever any good reason, theoretical or practical, to believe that the various policies described in his book (other than the tree farms) would actually lead to an improved quality of life for anyone, Scott does a poor job of showing what it might be. So far as I can tell, the only practical advantage for anyone of most of these schemes is that it simplifies the job of the tax collector. There is one intangible advantage: the implementers get to build massive monuments to themselves, using other people's bodies as bricks and mortar.

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