Seeing Like a State

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Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed is a book (hardcover release March 1998, paperback February 1999) by James C. Scott critical of a system of beliefs he calls high modernism, that center around confidence in the ability to design and operate society in accordance with scientific laws.[1][2] As the title implies, Scott thinks states impose forms that are convenient for the state, since they make societies "legible," but are not necessarily good for the people. For example, census data make it easier to tax and control the population.


Book reviews[edit]

John Gray, author of False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, reviewed the book favorably for the New York Times, concluding: "Today's faith in the free market echoes the faith of earlier generations in high modernist schemes that failed at great human cost. Seeing Like a State does not tell us what it is in late modern societies that predisposes them, against all the evidence of history, to put their trust in such utopias. Sadly, no one knows enough to explain that."[2]

Economist Brad DeLong wrote a detailed online review of the book.[3][4] DeLong's interpretation of the book was critiqued by Henry Farrell on the Crooked Timber blog,[5] and there was a follow-up exchange including further discussion of the book.[6][7]

Economist Deepak Lal reviewed the book for the Summer 2000 issue of The Independent Review, concluding: "Although I am in sympathy with Scott’s diagnosis of the development disasters he recounts, I conclude that he has not burrowed deep enough to discover a systematic cause of these failures. (In my view, that cause lies in the continuing attraction of various forms of “enterprises” in what at heart remains Western Christendom.) Nor is he right in so blithely dismissing the relevance of classical liberalism in finding remedies for the ills he eloquently describes.[8]

Political scientist Ulf Zimmermann reviewed the book for H-Net Online in December 1998, concluding: "It is important to keep in mind, as Scott likewise notes, that many of these projects replaced even worse social orders and at least occasionally introduced somewhat more egalitarian principles, never mind improving public health and such. And, in the end, many of the worst were sufficiently resisted in their absurdity, as he had shown so well in his Weapons of the Weak and as best demonstrated by the utter collapse of the soviet system. "Metis" alone is not sufficient; we need to find a way to link it felicitously with—to stick with Scott's Aristotelian vocabulary—phronesis and praxis, or, in more ordinary terms, to produce theories more profoundly grounded in actual practice so that the state may see better in implementing policies."[9]

Michael Adas of Rutgers University reviewed the book for the Summer 2000 issue of the Journal of Social History.[10]

Russell Hardin, a professor of politics at New York University, reviewed the book for The Good Society in 2001, disagreeing with Scott's diagnosis somewhat. Hardin concluded: "The failure of collectivization was therefore a failure of incentives, not a failure to rely on local knowledge."[11]


The September 2010 issue of Cato Unbound was devoted to discussing the themes of the book.[12] Scott wrote the lead essay.[13] Other participants were Donald Boudreaux, Timothy B. Lee, and J. Bradford DeLong. A number of people, including Henry Farrell and Tyler Cowen, weighed in on the discussion on their own blogs.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Scott, James C. (1998). Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-30007016-3. Retrieved 20 April 2015. 
  2. ^ a b Gray, John (April 19, 1998). "The Best-Laid Plans: Throughout history, efforts to improve humanity's lot have often done just the opposite". The New York Times. Retrieved February 18, 2014. 
  3. ^ DeLong, J. Bradford. "Forests, Trees, and Intellectual Roots... (review of Seeing Like a State)". Retrieved February 18, 2014. 
  4. ^ DeLong, J. Bradford (October 24, 2007). "James Scott and Friedrich Hayek". Retrieved February 18, 2014. 
  5. ^ Farrell, Henry (October 31, 2007). "DeLong, Scott and Hayek". Crooked Timber. Retrieved February 18, 2014. 
  6. ^ DeLong, J. Bradford (December 29, 2007). "DeLong Smackdown Watch Update: Henry Farrell". Retrieved February 18, 2014. 
  7. ^ Farrell, Henry (February 5, 2008). "Seeing Like "Seeing Like a State"". Crooked Timber. Retrieved February 18, 2014. 
  8. ^ Lal, Deepak (Summer 2000). "Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott (book review)". The Independent Review. Retrieved February 18, 2014. 
  9. ^ Zimmermann, Ulf (December 1998). "Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott (book review)". Retrieved February 18, 2014. 
  10. ^ Adas, Michael (Summer 2000). "Seeing Like a State". Journal of Social History. 33 (4): 959–963. JSTOR 3789172. 
  11. ^ Hardin, Russell (2001). "Books in Review: James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State" (PDF). The Good Society. pp. 36–39. 
  12. ^ "Seeing Like a State: A Conversation with James C. Scott". Cato Unbound. September 2010. Retrieved February 18, 2014. 
  13. ^ Scott, James C. (September 8, 2010). "The Trouble with the View from Above". Cato Unbound. Retrieved February 18, 2014. 
  14. ^ The Editors (September 17, 2010). "Seeing Like a State: Best of the Blogs". Cato Unbound. Retrieved February 18, 2014.