The Best-Laid Plans [Review of Scott’s Seeing Like a State]

The 20th century has seen many grand schemes for improving the human condition. The collectivization of farming in the Soviet Union, compulsory villagization in Ethiopia and postcolonial Tanzania, the construction of Brasilia according to Le Corbusiers theories of urban planning, Maoist Chinas Great Leap Forward and the self-sufficient rural economy that was the goal of Pol Pots Cambodia were ambitious efforts to better the lot of humankind. The ideas inspiring the schemes and the regimes that attempted them were highly diverse. The human costs of the experiments varied from an immeasurable toll in broken lives in Russia and China to a farcical waste of effort in Brazil. Despite their differences, these bold experiments had one thing in common: all failed. Why is it that such grandiose schemes of human betterment came to nothing? And can we be sure we have learned the lessons of their failure?


High modernists have used the increased powers of states to reshape society so that it functions as an enterprise whose goal is to maximize production. They have done so in the faith that they can thereby improve the human lot. Yet wherever it has been attempted the high modernist project has led to poverty, and sometimes it has produced human tragedy on a grand scale. Scott argues that ”the most tragic episodes of state-initiated social engineering originate in a pernicious combination of four elements.” He suggests that the conditions that account for the failure of the great 20th-century schemes of human improvement are the administrative ordering of society by the state, a faith in high modernist ideas, an authoritarian regime ready to use its coercive power to promote high modernist designs, and a weak civil society that lacks the power to resist these plans. When these four conditions occur together — as they did in the Soviet Union, China and certain developing countries — the results have been some of the worst disasters of social engineering.

The grand schemes for improving the human condition that our century has witnessed failed because of an error in their perception of human knowledge. High modernists thought they knew better than ordinary human beings how society works. They aimed to replace the common understanding of social life with scientific knowledge. But scientific knowledge is too abstract to capture our understanding of local circumstances — the practical knowledge the ancient Greeks called metis, which carried Odysseus though his adventures. This is the knowledge that modern governments ignored when they attempted to resettle peasant farmers in newly constructed villages. It is the knowledge urban planners lack when they try to construct cities according to a simple, comprehensive design.

The lesson of ”Seeing Like a State” is that the disasters of 20th-century social engineering come from its neglect of metis. Without the human capacity for this practical understanding, the harm done by grand schemes of human improvement would have been even worse. In fact, the only thing that has saved some societies from total wreckage by the absurdities of these projects has been the presence in them of resourceful human beings who have tempered them with the wisdom embodied in metis.

via The Best-Laid Plans.


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