James's Reviews > Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott
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's review
Sep 10, 2009

really liked it
Read in October, 2009

This book is an excellent exploration of why the modern state behaves the way it does and why it has trouble undertaking large scale, well-intended projects, like city planning and especially agricultural reform.

It starts with a look at early state attempts to make commerce 'legible,' with the example of efforts to standardize weights and measures in France, which was much more complicated and involved a lot of push back by the aristocracy. Then he looks at the invention of last names and the desire by early modern states to make village land use easy to organize to that it would be easy to tax.

From there he looks at the building of Brazilia and the collective farm efforts in the USSR (very coercive and done to maximize grain redistrubution to the cities) and Tanzania (done with good intentions to way too mechanical and beauracratized.

The basic point of this book is not the the modern state will screw up any attempt to intervene into the economy and culture, but rather it must respect local knowledge and have those effected by the programs leading it and designing it. For example, Scott points out that most farmers in Africa and South America have an increadible knowledge of local soils, crop varieties, etc and that their seemingly unordered and inefficient methods are actually a response to local conditions that attempt to diversify in the face of ecological uncertainty (these places are very different than the American wheat fields as far as growing conditions). So, he cautions that market oriented, western farming techiniques can be disasters in non western places that need to take subsistence in mind to.

He ends by returning to his point that positive intervention is possible, but that locals need to be controlling partners in the exercise and local knowledge must not be underestimated.

A must read for anyone interested in social change and developemnt.

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09/10/2009 page 28

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