Scott Alexander, (NO_ITEM_DATA:alexanderBookReviewSeeingState2017)


A book review and summary of the key points in (NO_ITEM_DATA:scottSeeingStateHowCertainSchemesImproveHumanConditionHaveFailed2020).


See James C. Scott | Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.



Scott starts with the story of “scientific forestry” in 18th century Prussia. Enlightenment rationalists noticed that peasants were just cutting down whatever trees happened to grow in the forests, like a chump. They came up with a better idea: clear all the forests and replace them by planting identical copies of Norway spruce (the highest-lumber-yield-per-unit-time tree) in an evenly-spaced rectangular grid. Then you could just walk in with an axe one day and chop down like a zillion trees an hour and have more timber than you could possibly ever want.

This went poorly. The impoverished ecosystem couldn’t support the game animals and medicinal herbs that sustained the surrounding peasant villages, and they suffered an economic collapse. The endless rows of identical trees were a perfect breeding ground for plant diseases and forest fires. And the complex ecological processes that sustained the soil stopped working, so after a generation the Norway spruces grew stunted and malnourished. Yet for some reason, everyone involved got promoted, and “scientific forestry” spread across Europe and the world.

And this pattern repeats with suspicious regularity across history, not just in biological systems but also in social ones.

Natural organically-evolved cities tend to be densely-packed mixtures of dark alleys, tiny shops, and overcrowded streets. Modern scientific rationalists came up with a better idea: an evenly-spaced rectangular grid of identical giant Brutalist apartment buildings separated by wide boulevards, with everything separated into carefully-zoned districts. Yet for some reason, whenever these new rational cities were built, people hated them and did everything they could to move out into more organic suburbs. And again, for some reason the urban planners got promoted, became famous, and spread their destructive techniques around the world.

Ye olde organically-evolved peasant villages tended to be complicated confusions of everybody trying to raise fifty different crops at the same time on awkwardly shaped cramped parcels of land. Modern scientific rationalists came up with a better idea: giant collective mechanized farms growing purpose-bred high-yield crops and arranged in (say it with me) evenly-spaced rectangular grids. Yet for some reason, these giant collective farms had lower yields per acre than the old traditional methods, and wherever they arose famine and mass starvation followed. And again, for some reason governments continued to push the more “modern” methods, whether it was socialist collectives in the USSR, big agricultural corporations in the US, or sprawling banana plantations in the Third World.

Traditional lifestyles of many East African natives were nomadic, involving slash-and-burn agriculture in complicated jungle terrain according to a bewildering variety of ad-hoc rules. Modern scientific rationalists in African governments (both colonial and independent) came up with a better idea – resettlement of the natives into villages, where they could have modern amenities like schools, wells, electricity, and evenly-spaced rectangular grids. Yet for some reason, these villages kept failing: their crops died, their economies collapsed, and their native inhabitants disappeared back into the jungle. And again, for some reason the African governments kept trying to bring the natives back and make them stay, even if they had to blur the lines between villages and concentration camps to make it work.

Why did all of these schemes fail? And more importantly, why were they celebrated, rewarded, and continued, even when the fact of their failure became too obvious to ignore? Scott gives a two part answer.

The first part of the story is High Modernism [High modernism], an aesthetic taste masquerading as a scientific philosophy. The High Modernists claimed to be about figuring out the most efficient and high-tech way of doing things, but most of them knew little relevant math or science and were basically just LARPing being rational by placing things in evenly-spaced rectangular grids.

But the High Modernists were pawns in service of a deeper motive: the centralized state wanted the world to be “legible” [Legible], ie arranged in a way that made it easy to monitor and control. An intact forest might be more productive than an evenly-spaced rectangular grid of Norway spruce, but it was harder to legislate rules for, or assess taxes on.

The state promoted the High Modernists’ platitudes about The Greater Good as cover [X isn’t (only) about Y], in order to implement the totalitarian schemes they wanted to implement anyway. The resulting experiments were usually failures by the humanitarian goals of the Modernists, but resounding successes by the command-and-control goals of the state. And so we gradually transitioned from systems that were messy but full of fine-tuned hidden order, to ones that were barely-functional but really easy to tax.


Examples and quotes from (NO_ITEM_DATA:scottSeeingStateHowCertainSchemesImproveHumanConditionHaveFailed2020) illustrating the difficulty of ruling/administering a population which lacks certain shared standards (e.g. weights, measures, definitions of what is “taxable land”).


The moral of the story is: premodern states had very limited ability to tax their citizens effectively. Along with the problems mentioned above – nonstandardized measurement, nonstandardized property rights, nonstandardized personal names – we can add a few others. At this point national languages were a cruel fiction; local “dialects” could be as different from one another as eg Spanish is from Portuguese, so villagers might not even be able to understand the tax collectors. Worst of all, there was no such thing as a census in France until the 17th century, so there wasn’t even a good idea of how many people or villages there were.

Kings usually solved this problem by leaving the tax collection up to local lords, who presumably knew the idiosyncracies of their own domains. But one step wasn’t always enough. If the King only knew Dukes, and the Dukes only knew Barons, and the Barons only knew village headmen, and it was only the village headmen who actually knew anything about the peasants, then you needed a four-step chain to get any taxes. Each link in the chain had an incentive to collect as much as they could and give up as little as they could get away with. So on the one end, the peasants were paying backbreaking punitive taxes. And on the other, the Royal Treasurer was handing the King half a loaf of moldy bread and saying “Here you go, Sire, apparently this is all the grain in France.”

So from the beginning, kings had an incentive to make the country “legible” – that is, so organized and well-indexed that it was easy to know everything about everyone and collect/double-check taxes. Also from the beginning, nobles had an incentive to frustrate the kings so that they wouldn’t be out of a job. And commoners, who figured that anything which made it easier for the State to tax them and interfere in their affairs was bad news, usually resisted too.


So the early modern period is defined by an uneasy truce between states who want to be able to count and standardize everything, and citizens who don’t want to let them. Enter High Modernism [High modernism].

Scott uses Le Corbusier as the epitome of five High Modernist principles.

  1. [T]here can be no compromise with the existing infrastructure. It was designed by superstitious people who didn’t have architecture degrees, or at the very least got their architecture degrees in the past and so were insufficiently Modern. The more completely it is bulldozed to make way for the Glorious Future, the better.
  2. [H]uman needs can be abstracted and calculated. A human needs X amount of food. A human needs X amount of water. A human needs X amount of light, and prefers to travel at X speed, and wants to live within X miles of the workplace. These needs are easily calculable by experiment, and a good city is the one built to satisfy these needs and ignore any competing frivolities.
  3. [T]he solution is the solution. It is universal. The rational design for Moscow is the same as the rational design for Paris is the same as the rational design for Chandigarh, India. As a corollary, all of these cities ought to look exactly the same. It is maybe permissible to adjust for obstacles like mountains or lakes. But only if you are on too short a budget to follow the rationally correct solution of leveling the mountain and draining the lake to make your city truly optimal.
  4. [A]ll of the relevant rules should be explicitly determined by technocrats, then followed to the letter by their subordinates. Following these rules is better than trying to use your intuition, in the same way that using the laws of physics to calculate the heat from burning something is better than just trying to guess, or following an evidence-based clinical algorithm is better than just prescribing whatever you feel like.
  5. [T]here is nothing whatsoever to be gained or learned from the people involved (eg the city’s future citizens). You are a rational modern scientist with an architecture degree who has already calculated out the precise value for all relevant urban parameters. They are yokels who probably cannot even spell the word architecture, let alone usefully contribute to it. They probably make all of their decisions based on superstition or tradition or something, and their input should be ignored For Their Own Good.

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What happened? Scott writes:

Most of those who have moved to Brasilia from other cities are amazed to discover “that it is a city without crowds.” People complain that Brasilia lacks the bustle of street life, that it has none of the busy street corners and long stretches of storefront facades that animate a sidewalk for pedestrians. For them, it is almost as if the founders of Brasilia, rather than having planned a city, have actually planned to prevent a city. The most common way they put it is to say that Brasilia “lacks street corners,“by which they mean that it lacks the complex intersections of dense neighborhoods comprising residences and public cafes and restaurants with places for leisure, work, and shopping.

While Brasilia provides well for some human needs, the functional separation of work from residence and of both from commerce and entertainment, the great voids between superquadra, and a road system devoted exclusively to motorized traffic make the disappearance of the street corner a foregone conclusion. The plan did eliminate traffic jams; it also eliminated the welcome and familiar pedestrian jams that one of Holston’s informants called “the point of social conviviality

The term brasilite, meaning roughly Brasilia-itis,which was coined by the first-generation residents, nicely captures the trauma they experienced. As a mock clinical condition, it connotes a rejection of the standardization and anonymity of life in Brasilia. “They use the term brasilite to refer to their feelings about a daily life without the pleasures-the distractions, conversations, flirtations, and little rituals of outdoor life in other Brazilian cities.” Meeting someone normally requires seeing them either at their apartment [First place] or at work [Second place]. Even if we allow for the initial simplifying premise of Brasilia’s being an administrative city, there is nonetheless a bland anonymity built into the very structure of the capital. The population simply lacks the small accessible spaces that they could colonize and stamp with the character of their activity, as they have done historically in Rio and Sao Paulo. To be sure, the inhabitants of Brasilia haven’t had much time to modify the city through their practices, but the city is designed to be fairly recalcitrant to their efforts.

“Brasilite,” as a term, also underscores how the built environment affects those who dwell in it. Compared to life in Rio and Sao Paulo, with their color and variety, the daily round in bland, repetitive, austere Brasilia must have resembled life in a sensory deprivation tank. The recipe for high-modernist urban planning, while it may have created formal order and functional segregation, did so at the cost of a sensorily impoverished and monotonous environment-an environment that inevitably took its toll on the spirits of its residents.

The anonymity induced by Brasilia is evident from the scale and exterior of the apartments that typically make up each residential superquadra. For superquadra residents, the two most frequent complaints are the sameness of the apartment blocks and the isolation of the residences (“In Brasilia, there is only house and work”). The facade of each block is strictly geometric and egalitarian. Nothing distinguishes the exterior of one apartment from another; there are not even balconies that would allow residents to add distinctive touches and create semipublic spaces.


I never really “got” Jane Jacobs. I originally interpreted her as arguing that it was great for cities to be noisy and busy and full of crowds, and that we should build neighborhoods that are confusing and hard to get through to force people to interact with each other and prevent them from being able to have privacy, and no one should be allowed to live anywhere quiet or nice. As somebody who (thanks to the public school system, etc) has had my share of being forced to interact with people, and of being placed in situations where it is deliberately difficult to have any privacy or time to myself, I figured Jane Jacobs was just a jerk.

But Scott has kind of made me come around. He rehabilitates her as someone who was responding to the very real excesses of High Modernism. She was the first person who really said “Hey, maybe people like being in cute little neighborhoods”. Her complaint wasn’t really against privacy or order per se as it was against extreme High Modernist perversions of those concepts that people empirically hated. And her background makes this all too understandable – she started out as a journalist covering poor African-Americans who lived in the projects and had some of the same complaints as Brazilians.

Her critique of Le Corbusierism was mostly what you would expect, but Scott extracts some points useful for their contrast with the Modernist points earlier:

  1. [E]xisting structures are evolved organisms built by people trying to satisfy their social goals. They contain far more wisdom about people’s needs and desires than anybody could formally enumerate. Any attempt at urban planning should try to build on this encoded knowledge, not detract from it.
  2. [M]an does not live by bread alone. People don’t want the right amount of Standardized Food Product, they want social interaction, culture, art, coziness, and a host of other things nobody will ever be able to calculate. Existing structures have already been optimized for these things, and unless you’re really sure you understand all of them, you should be reluctant to disturb them [Chesterton’s fence].
  3. [S]olutions are local. Americans want different things than Africans or Indians. One proof of this is that New York looks different from Lagos and from Delhi. Even if you are the world’s best American city planner, you should be very concerned that you have no idea what people in Africa need, and you should be very reluctant to design an African city without extensive consultation of people who understand the local environment.
  4. [E]ven a very smart and well-intentioned person who is on board with points 1-3 will never be able to produce a set of rules. Most of people’s knowledge is implicit [Implicit knowledge], and most rule codes are quickly replaced by informal systems [Tacit knowledge] of things that work which are much more effective (the classic example of this is work-to-rule [Work-to-rule] strikes).
  5. [A]lthough well-educated technocrats may understand principles which give them some advantages in their domain, they are hopeless without the on-the-ground experience of the people they are trying to serve, whose years of living in their environment and dealing with it every day have given them a deep practical knowledge which is difficult to codify.

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Even in less exotic locales like Russia, the peasant farmers were extraordinary experts on the conditions of their own farms, their own climates, and their own crops. Take all of these people, transport them a thousand miles away, and give them a perfectly rectangular grid to grow Wheat Cultivar #6 on, and you have a recipe for disaster.


So if this was such a bad idea, why did everyone keep doing it?

In short, governing bodies continued (and continue) to push these solutions not because they solve the people’s problems but because they solve the problems the governing bodies have.

Historically, the relative illegibility to outsiders of some urban neighborhoods has provided a vital margin of political safety from control by outside elites. A simple way of determining whether this margin exists is to ask if an outsider would have needed a local guide in order to find her way successfully. If the answer is yes, then the community or terrain in question enjoys at least a small measure of insulation from outside intrusion. Coupled with patterns of local solidarity, this insulation has proven politically valuable in such disparate contexts as eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century urban riots over bread prices in Europe, the Front de Liberation Nationale’s tenacious resistance to the French in the Casbah of Algiers, and the politics of the bazaar that helped to bring down the Shah of Iran. Illegibility, then, has been and remains a reliable resource for political autonomy

This was a particular problem in Paris, which was famous for a series of urban insurrections in the 19th century (think Les Miserables, but about once every ten years or so). Although these generally failed, they were hard to suppress because locals knew the “terrain” and the streets were narrow enough to barricade. Slums full of poor people gathered together formed tight communities where revolutionary ideas could easily spread. The late 19th-century redesign of Paris had the explicit design of destroying these areas and splitting up poor people somewhere far away from the city center where they couldn’t do any harm.

So although modernist cities and farms may have started out as attempts to help citizens with living and farming, they ended up as contributors to the great government project of legibility and taxing people effectively.

Seeing Like A State summarizes the sort of on-the-ground ultra-empirical knowledge that citizens have of city design and peasants of farming as metis, a Greek term meaning “practical wisdom”. I was a little concerned about this because they seem like two different things. The average citizen knows nothing about city design and in fact does not design cities; cities sort of happen in a weird way through cultural evolution or whatever. The average farmer knows a lot about farming (even if it is implicit and not as book learning) and applies that knowledge directly in how they farm. But Scott thinks these are more or less the same thing, that this thing is a foundation of successful communities and industries, and that ignoring and suppressing it is what makes collective farms and modernist planned cities so crappy. He generalizes this further to almost every aspect of a society – its language, laws, social norms, and economy. But this is all done very quickly, and I feel like there was a sleight of hand between “each farmer eventually figures out how to farm well” and “social norms converge on good values”.

Insofar as Scott squares the above circle, he seems to think that many actors competing with each other will eventually carve out a beneficial equilibrium better than that of any centralized authority. This doesn’t really mesh will with my own fear that many actors competing with each other will eventually shoot themselves in the foot and destroy everything, and I haven’t really seen a careful investigation of when we get one versus the other.


What are we to make of all of this?

Well, for one thing, Scott basically admits to stacking the dice against High Modernism and legibility. He admits that the organic livable cities of old had life expectancies in the forties because nobody got any light or fresh air and they were all packed together with no sewers and so everyone just died of cholera. He admits that at some point agricultural productivity multiplied by like a thousand times and the Green Revolution saved millions of lives and all that, and probably that has something to do with scientific farming methods and rectangular grids. He admits that it’s pretty convenient having a unit of measurement that local lords can’t change whenever they feel like it. Even modern timber farms seem pretty successful. After all those admissions, it’s kind of hard to see what’s left of his case.

(also, I grew up in Irvine, the most planned of planned cities, and I loved it.)

What Scott eventually says is that he’s not against legibility and modernism per se, but he wants to present them as ingredients in a cocktail of state failure. You need a combination of four things to get a disaster like Soviet collective farming (or his other favorite example, compulsory village settlement in Tanzania). First, a government incentivized to seek greater legibility for its population and territory. Second, a High Modernist ideology. Third, authoritarianism. And fourth, a “prostrate civil society”, like in Russia after the Revolution, or in colonies after the Europeans took over.

I think his theory is that the back-and-forth between centralized government and civil society allows scientific advances to be implemented smoothly instead of just plowing over everyone in a way that leads to disaster. I also think that maybe a big part of it is incremental versus sudden: western farming did well because it got to incrementally add advances and see how they worked, but when you threw the entire edifice at Tanzania it crashed and burned.

I’m still not really sure what’s left. Authoritarianism is bad? Destroying civil society is bad? You shouldn’t do things when you have no idea what you’re doing and all you’ve got to go on is your rectangle fetish? The book contained some great historical tidbits, but I’m not sure what overarching lesson I learned from it.

It’s not that I don’t think Scott’s preference for metis over scientific omnipotence has value. I think it has lots of value. I see this all the time in psychiatry, which always has been and to some degree still is really High Modernist. We are educated people who know a lot about mental health, dealing with a poor population who (in the case of one of my patients) refers to Haldol as “Hound Dog”. It’s very easy to get in the trap of thinking that you know better than these people, especially since you often do (I will never understand how many people are shocked when I diagnose their sleep disorder as having something to do with them drinking fifteen cups of coffee a day).

But psychiatric patients have a metis of dealing with their individual diseases the same way peasants have a metis of dealing with their individual plots of land. My favorite example of this is doctors who learn their patients are taking marijuana, refuse to keep prescribing them their vitally important drugs unless the patient promises to stop, and then gets surprised when the patients end up decompensating because the marijuana was keeping them together. I’m not saying smoking marijuana is a good thing. I’m saying that for some people it’s a load-bearing piece of their mental edifice. And if you take it away without any replacement they will fall apart. And they have explained this to you a thousand times and you didn’t believe them.

There are so many fricking patients who respond to sedative medications by becoming stimulated, or stimulant medications by becoming sedated, or who become more anxious whenever they do anti-anxiety exercises, or who hallucinate when placed on some super common medication that has never caused hallucinations in anyone else, or who become suicidal if you try to reassure them that things aren’t so bad, or any other completely perverse and ridiculous violation of the natural order that you can think of. And the only redeeming feature of all of this is that the patients themselves know all of this stuff super-well and are usually happy to tell you if you ask.

I can totally imagine going into a psychiatric clinic armed with the Evidence-Based Guidelines the same way Le Corbusier went into Moscow and Paris armed with his Single Rational City Plan and the same way the agricultural scientists went into Tanzania armed with their List Of Things That Definitely Work In Europe. I expect it would have about the same effect for about the same reason.


So fine, Scott is completely right here. But I’m only bringing this up because it’s something I’ve already thought about. If I didn’t already believe this, I’d be indifferent between applying the narrative of the wise Tanzanian farmers knowing more than their English colonizers, versus the narrative of the dumb yokels who refuse to get vaccines because they might cause autism. Heuristics work until they don’t. Scott provides us with these great historical examples of local knowledge outdoing scientific acumen, but other stories present us with great historical examples of the opposite, and when to apply which heuristic seems really unclear. Even “don’t bulldoze civil society and try to change everything at once” goes astray sometimes; the Meiji Restoration was wildly successful by doing exactly that.