This month at Cato Unbound, political scientist James C. Scott joins us in a discussion of his landmark book Seeing Like a State. His lead essay “The Trouble with the View from Above” gets readers up to speed and reviews some of the key themes of the book. Here’s an excerpt:
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.
Local knowledge both empowers and constrains – it allows and/or encourages some social practices, while making others more difficult. The progress of state power, meanwhile, depends on systematized, uniform knowledge of a wide area, with a loss of local particularity and the knowledge that goes with it. Seeing like a state has costs, in other words.
Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be joined by discussants Donald Boudreaux, Brad DeLong, and Timothy Lee, each of whom will have a chance to ask Scott about his work, discuss its significance, and relate it to their own thinking about states, markets, and societies.