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The Trouble With The View From Above
September 13, 2010 9:32 PM   Subscribe

The Trouble With The View From Above. James C. Scott at Cato Unbound has an interesting essay on what we gain - and what we lose - when we trade localized, vernacular categories for the uniform, official categories of a state. His ideas are fleshed out more in his book, Seeing Like A State. Economist Donald Boudreax responds. Brad DeLong and Timothy Lee have forthcoming responses.
posted by Sticherbeast (22 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Previously
posted by shii at 9:51 PM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


His ideas are fleshed out more in his book, Seeing Like A State.

It's a good book (as are his previous books), but it's something like 11 years old. It was a major contribution then, and is still (deservedly) read, but surely Scott can do better than writing retread essays like this.
posted by Forktine at 11:01 PM on September 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's a good book (as are his previous books), but it's something like 11 years old. It was a major contribution then, and is still (deservedly) read, but surely Scott can do better than writing retread essays like this.

I guess it took that long for the think tanks to get around to reading it.
posted by TwelveTwo at 12:52 AM on September 14, 2010


Alternative comment:

This is just more proof no one reads books. People only read articles advertising books.
posted by TwelveTwo at 12:53 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


From the Boudreax piece:

"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."

Now I like the thought behind an idea orgy but if he is going to torture a metaphor, what about going whole hog with idea beastuality?
posted by mfoight at 2:33 AM on September 14, 2010


Shorter Cato institute: the rich should pay less in taxes.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:13 AM on September 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


Shorter Cato institute: their diets as youth were poor in protein and now they have trouble on dating sites
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:39 AM on September 14, 2010


Shorter Cato institute: they can't stop talking about how much they love Ayn Rand on dating sites, and now they have trouble showing their face in public.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 6:39 AM on September 14, 2010


To put this all in perspective, gee, anti-statists funded by Cato? Because if the state is small, gee nobody has to pay for it. And we all pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, because you know, racism and sexism are gone, so there won't be any of that nasty discrimination, don't you know.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:51 AM on September 14, 2010


Jesus. James C. Scott is one of my intellectual heroes, and it would be great to read some informed and lively discussion of his ideas, but pretty much all there was in the earlier thread (aside from shii and a couple of others) was lazy, thoughtless snark about how great civilization is (as if Scott were denying that), and it looks like all this thread will contain will be lazy, thoughtless snark about the Cato Institute. Have fun, and for heaven's sake don't bother to read Scott or spend two minutes actually thinking about his ideas.
posted by languagehat at 7:00 AM on September 14, 2010 [6 favorites]


I feel you, languagehat. I was hoping this article would trigger some discussion.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:25 AM on September 14, 2010


Shorter Cato institute: confuse the effects of cheap energy (predicated through subsidies to that industry) with free trade and would probably be statists if they knew it.
posted by symbollocks at 7:28 AM on September 14, 2010


To provide something more substantive, I will say this: I've lately been dealing with peopel whose public benefits have been cut. Something fascinating to me has how the state has tagged and identified not only the incomes and disabilities of its citizens, but also how the state has tagged and identified every part of its public benefit process, frequently to a point of absurdity. The map becomes the territory, especially when there is an incentive to get people off the rolls. It's as if the anatomy chart in your doctor's office was a butcher's chart.

Where your itemized statement will say that your benefits are getting recouped, but since you don't have a notice for the recouping on your statement, you can't get a fair hearing - it's like the "receipt for your receipt" from Brazil. Where you apply for shelter, but you can't account for the two months you were sleeping on the subway, since you were on the subway and all, so the state asks for 1) a photo of you or 2) a letter from a train conductor. Processes divorced from reality, but divorced in such a way where you can see in its contours how there are the duelling motives of 1) helping people and 2) preventing people from receiving help.

For me, Scott's piece brought these thoughts into focus.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:47 AM on September 14, 2010


Crooked Timber* points to a different--and more interesting--piece by Scott online in which he goes beyond his prior comments on the state to talk about the pernicious effects of corporate-led standardization.

As Languagehat suggests, Scott is a little more interesting than people here seem to think. Crucially, he's not a standard libertarian. He's much more of an anarchist, and much more concerned with the failures of centralized authoritarianism and responses to coercive power at all levels. I think states do more good than he sometimes seems to credit them, but in any case he is emphatically not your average Cato commentator. For one thing, he's a senior professor at Yale and I very much doubt he's on Cato's payroll.

*Roughly 50% of my posts here link to CT, it seems. My apologies; they have thoroughly colonized my mind and reading habits.
posted by col_pogo at 8:05 AM on September 14, 2010


Thanks for posting. I have not read any Scott, but with this introduction I will be in the near future.
posted by readery at 8:25 AM on September 14, 2010


MetaFilter: lazy, thoughtless snark about how great civilization is.
posted by spitefulcrow at 8:48 AM on September 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


It is always baffling when the defenders of big business use arguments against big state without realizing they are actually arguments against big. It is as if they believe that corporations do not engage in map making and centralized planning. Or that it doesn't matter.
posted by TwelveTwo at 9:02 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


TwelveTwo: As Scott himself puts it at the end of his article, "the conclusions I draw from the failures of modern social engineering are as applicable to market-driven standardization as they are to bureaucratic homogeneity." I don't much cotton to Cato's politics either, but their organization is a perhaps-surprisingly large tent.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:07 AM on September 14, 2010


Oops. Having read all his books, I just kinda skimmed the article and built the rest in my head. But I guess that is just why civilization is great.
posted by TwelveTwo at 9:45 AM on September 14, 2010


Shorter Cato Institute: Oh I'm in love with the janitor's boy, And the janitor's boy loves me; He's going to hunt for a desert isle in our geography.

(Does that work? I'm not entirely clear on the rules for this...)
posted by Naberius at 10:16 AM on September 14, 2010


Seeing Like a State (1998) is an awesome book. Introduction. Review by Brad deLong. Response by Henry Farrell.

a different--and more interesting--piece

Theory Talks #38 (May 2010): James Scott on Agriculture as Politics, the Dangers of Standardization and Not Being Governed.
Q. You can be labeled as a critic of the modernizing project inherent in states. Can you give an example of a contemporary form of governing you do endorse or would promote?

A. The degree to which a planning process is inflected at every level by democratic processes—for all the messiness that it introduces—seems to me to lead in the long run to more satisfactory outcomes for everybody concerned, and it also results in the kind of commitment to the results in which people felt that they had an adequate part in shaping. Examples are rife of successfully designed plans thought up from above, that fail because the people for whom this planning was designed, have had no stake in it. I don’t want to get rid of the modernization project, I just want to tame the rule of experts.
posted by russilwvong at 11:47 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Shorter MeFi: Does it in any remotely possible way challenge "Progressive" ideas? Because "Progressive" ideas are unassailable and their rightness is self-evident. Hey you Libertarians: What about roads, huh? Huh? And, and Ayn Rand inspired bad tunes by Rush, which only 16-year-olds listen to.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:26 PM on September 14, 2010


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