James C. Scott's 1999 book Seeing Like a State has had an enduring influence across the ideological spectrum, and particularly in an unexpected corner — among market liberals. Although Scott has described himself, somewhat cryptically, as a "crude Marxist, with the emphasis on 'crude,'" it is clear that his work does not fit merely the Marxist paradigm. Though empirically based in peasant studies in Southeast Asia, Scott's insights have applications throughout the modern industrial world, and for economies both planned and spontaneous. (Our banner art, depicting a rice paddy viewed from the air, pays tribute to this aspect of Scott's career.)
Indeed, affinities can be seen between Professor Scott's work and theorists as diverse as Jane Jacobs and Michel Foucault, to say nothing of Friedrich Hayek and the rest of the Austrian School of Economics. Scott's thesis is startlingly simple: States can only exert their power on what they can know about. Knowing requires measuring, systematizing, and simplifying.
It requires, in other words, missing out on a lot of particular local data. Strategies of resistance to state power often take these gaps as their starting point, and problems with state rule often begin here as well. The state itself to a high degree may be said to run on legibility — the ability to know what's really going on in a governed population or territory. Legibility, however, is in limited supply, and it comes at a cost.
Joining in our conversation this month are Donald J. Boudreaux, an economist at George Mason University; J. Bradford Delong, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley; and Timothy B. Lee, a scholar at Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University and a Cato Adjunct Scholar.
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All who pretend to be educated will enjoy reading this book. It reaffirms the ability of good ideas to excite.
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