Thursday, March 24, 2011

Seeing Like a State - Mike Reid - Mises Daily

When I first read James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State, I was studying at a far-left Canadian university, and in one of its furthest-left graduate programs. I, like many of my instructors and peers, assumed that the proper goal of scholarly research was to help the state help its subjects — with everything from raising crops to raising children. I looked forward to a career as a wise academic providing the state with all the knowledge it needs to improve its subjects' condition. But my statist assumptions came to an end when I read, as Scott's subtitle puts it, How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.

Through entertaining case studies of disastrous state projects, Scott argues that government planners in the 19th and 20th centuries developed a particular aesthetic obsession: they were frustrated by the untidy complexity of real human societies. And their attempts to "improve" human life usually boiled down to attempts to simplify it — to make it look nice from the point of view of the administrator.