Thoughts about Seeing Like A State (1)

Seeing Like A State by James Scott is in my reading list for the vacation. So far I have found the book insightful and provocative. As it says on its cover, the book is about “how certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed”. I’ve been jotting down my thoughts as I read along. The following are my thoughts on the first two chapters.

The author started off by comparing the state to a forest. To get an idea about the composition of a forest, one has to classify the trees into several categories with certain standards, and record the number of trees in each category. This procedure sacrifices precision for the general idea (the “big picture”). Likewise, if a states needs to manage its people for fiscal or political purposes, it has to assign unified measures to people to categorize them.

The tension between local powers and the central government is present in all states. The central government is the political focal point and steers the policy direction of the whole country. But it lacks information about local situations, which may discount the effects of policy implementation. This is especially evident in ancient and contemporary China given its size and heterogeneity among regions. Qin Shihuang (the first emperor in China) unified units of measurement and currency. This accommodated for market activities between regions and fostered political unity. Without comparable units of measurements, market activities are limited to a small, local scale. Units of measurements also comes into play in tax collection.

These arguments remind me of what I learned in my development seminar. One feature of the development microeconomics is nonanonymity. Everyone in the village knows each other well. Trust can be established easily through repetitive interaction. When market transactions are limited to the local community, it seems safe, but it also greatly restricts the resources available. As the market grows, people will need to interact with the outside to consume a wider array of goods, to gain more information, and to make more diversified investment portfolios. These requires the adoption of unified measurements and currency, accepted rules about market order, and legal enforcement institutions.

The author argues that the administrative simplification of the state progresses from control over nature (e.g. forest) to control over space (e.g. land tenure), and then to inherited, permanent patronyms. In China, many patronyms were given in the Qin dynasty for better identification and easier tax collection.

The state can design cities to be more legible to outsiders and therefore increase its control over local areas. An example is the redesign of Paris. The military security of the state was the central concern of Louis Napoleon’s and Haussmann’s plans. The boulevards were designed to be wide and directly accessible from the center, which allows the army to march quickly in case of insurrection.


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