James Scott, (Scott 2020)


I can’t say for sure whether or not this book is a branch or Tree book without having read it in its entirety. However, I’ve read Scott Alexander | Book Review: Seeing Like A State and skimmed the book itself. I think the summary does justice to the main thrusts of the book:

  • Truth resists simplicity
  • The ills of Legibility relate to High modernism and, more generally, the reluctance and/or inability of those in positions of power to Imagine others complexly
  • States impose Legibility upon their people, lands, languages, etc, they require it in order to function
  • Legibility isn’t all bad
    • People may resist a single system for weights and measures but states which have one are at an advantage over states who don’t
    • A single language enables a cohesive culture within the state (albeit at the expense of the sub-cultures)
  • Legibility isn’t all good
    • Loss of local traditions and ways of life
    • Ineffective practices and programs branded as “perfect” while based on flawed or incomplete information; see Chesterton’s fence
    • Reduction of human life to a handful of statistics (e.g. Standard Food Units, identical housing, lack of private or Third places); see Moloch
    • Enforces a single way of doing X which (1) doesn’t allow for different preferences between individuals or groups and (2) doesn’t account for how the “best way” of doing X will change over time; doesn’t include room to grow, expand, or change over time.


I treasure this book for introducing me to the state’s (for many definitions of state) perspective in planning and system construction.


OWEN: What is happening?
YOLLAND: I’m not sure. But I’m concerned about my part in it. It’s an eviction of sorts.
OWEN: We’re making a six-inch map of the country. Is there something sinister in that?
YOLLAND: Not in …
OWEN: And we’re taking place names that are riddled with confusion and…
YOLLAND: Who’s confused? Are the people confused?
OWEN: And we’re standardising those names as accurately and as sensitively as we can.
YOLLAND: Something is being eroded.

— Brian Friel, Translations 2.1


Scott, James C. 2020. Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Veritas paperback edition. New Haven: Yale University Press.