In This Review

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed
Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed
By James C. Scott
445 pp, Yale University Press, 1998

This important book dispenses with ideological posturing and tries to explain systematically why it is that states have so often failed in their ambitious projects to engineer society or the natural environment, leading to counterproductive if not disastrous outcomes. While this theme has become a commonplace, the author's choice of cases is fascinating and goes well beyond the familiar ones like Soviet collectivization. He begins with scientific forest management in Germany that planted trees in straight rows without regard for ecological diversity, continues through the high urban modernism of Le Courbusier that led to unlivable cities like Brasilia, and the forced resettlement of people into villages in Tanzania. States (and this can apply to large corporations as well) want to simplify reality and fit it into their own administrative categories, inevitably discarding local knowledge that is often critical to managing the complexities of social life and the natural environment. In addition, the ideology of high modernism regarded surface order as an aesthetic value in its own right, leading planners to bulldoze older tenement neighborhoods that contained dense social networks for sterile high-rise developments that atomized their inhabitants. When coupled with the coercive power of the modern state and a weak civil society, these tendencies resulted in disasters like the Great Leap forward. In place of the arrogance of twentieth-century planners, the author recommends reliance on what he labels metis, a more practically and locally rooted kind of knowledge. My only criticism is that the author left out an already-written chapter on the Tennessee Valley Authority -- America's great foray into large-scale social engineering -- for reasons of space.