Seeing Like a State

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Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have FailedJames C. Scott

No battle — Tarutino, Borodino, or Austerlitz — takes place as those who planned it anticipated. That is an essential condition.

—Tolstoy, War and Peace

Business, and government, suffers from a kind of physics envy.

Rory Sutherland, citing Paul Ormerod

In sum, the legibility of a society provides the capacity for large-scale social engineering, high-modernist ideology provides the desire, the authoritarian state provides the determination to act on that de­sire, and an incapacitated civil society provides the leveled social ter­rain on which to build.

James C. Scott

James C. Scott published Seeing Like a State nearly thirty years ago, in 1998, so it’s a bit late to get excited about it — and while it addresses a form of “high modernism” that saw its apex in the late 20th Century, the read-across to our encroaching technocratic dystopia, and beyond it into the interior workings of any large corporation shrieks from every page.

These are profound ideas we all should recognise, and which could transform the effectiveness of what we all do, but — being, well, citizens of a “prostrate civil society” — either we can’t or we won’t.

Exactly why we are so wilfully blind to this will to administration is the great, unexplored topic of our age. That so many have so much to lose by exploring it may explain the mystery.

Scott’s thesis in Seeing Like a State is that well-meant patrician government can lead to utter disaster. His examples are legion. One could — and some do — criticise him for this anecdotal approach: he has, on this view, curated examples that best fit his thesis, which therefore suffers from insoluble confirmation bias — but this barely matters, for Scott’s thesis is so familiar, so plausible and its exhortations so consistent with other theories in adjacent fields,[1] that it is hard to be bothered by a lack of empirical rigour. This stuff all stands to reason.

Its value is not in its data but Scott’s narrative, as a counter-narrative to the modern corporate orthodoxy, that some gilded superman at the top of the heap pulling magic levers can do so for the betterment of all.

Scott does not say that disaster follows inevitably from top-down management, but just that it is a likely system effect. Wherever there is a disaster, the same four conditions are present:

  1. The will to bend nature — and the polity — to the administrator’s agenda
  2. a “high modernist” ideology under which all problems can be anticipated and solved with the right organisation, application and empirical rigour
  3. the authoritarian machinery to impose this ideological vision and
  4. a subjugated citizenry without the means or inclination to resist.

Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China and Kim’s North Korea fit the pattern exactly. But so do most modern multinational corporations. In what follows, “government” may be interchanged with “executive management” with little loss of sense.

Legibility: the administrative ordering of nature and society

Any government must be able to “read” and thus “get a handle on” — hence, “make legible” — and so administrate the vast sprawling detail and myriad interconnections between its citizens, lands and resources.

It does this by, in its “statey” way, narratising a bafflingly complex system into a thin, idealistic model: it assigns its citizens permanent identities (in the Middle Ages, literally, by giving them surnames: now, with identity cards, passports and, er, the chips shortly to be implanted in our foreheads); it decrees standard weights, measures and distances for times and places overruling local customs and conventions (it is said Chinese farmers gauged distance by “the time it takes to boil rice”, which provides a different, and more practical means of comprehending how far away you are); it commissions “cadastral surveys” of the land so it can collect taxes; it records land holdings, registers births, deaths and marriages, imposes conventions of language and legal discourse, designs cities and transport networks: in effect, it creates a standard grid that can be measured, monitored and understood from the bird’s eye view of city hall. A population that legible is manipulable.

This cost of this legibility is abridgement: it represents only the slice of society that interests the administrator. This would be harmless enough if those measures did not impact how citizens interact with each other and their environment. But, as we know they do.

Citizens account for their incomes to optimise their personal tax positions. When administrators levied a window tax — reasoning that the number of windows is proportionate to the size of a building, and therefore a fair proxy — citizens redesigned their houses to have fewer windows. This brought in less tax and harmed the well-being of the population.

Modern society is shot through with similar arbitrary rules. Through their combined effect society comes to be remade to suit the administrator, but not always in ways the administrator might have had in mind. Society is the archetypal system: arbitrarily diverting its natural stocks and flows to solve one administrative problem inevitably only creates other feedback loops generating other ones.

We lose something critical when we simplify, which state officials cannot but do. Converting local customs — “a living, negotiated tissue of practices which are continually being adapted to new ecological and social circumstances — including, of course, power relations” — to unalterable thin rules loses the subtlety and scope for micro-adjustment — evolution — that these customs, if left to themselves, continually undergo.

You lose something special when you atomise a complex system. Emergent properties vanish. It is a poorer, less productive thing.

High modernist ideology

This yen to regularise often comes with a “muscle-bound” self-confidence that the State can expand production, better satisfy human needs and master nature (including human nature) and centrally configure social order “commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws”. This is the “high-modernist” view. It translates to a rational, ordered, geometric (hence “legible”) view of a world which depends on the benign guiding vision of the state to bring about big projects.

Now those infinitesimal interconnections and illegible relations are not just “invisible” to the State, but inimical to it. Natural forests are replaced with grid plantations of Norway spruce: it rejects parts of the ecosystem because it cannot “see” them and because they don’t fit the model. But those invisible parts play valuable and vital roles in the ecosystem — even for the Norway spruce.

A new term, Waldsterben (“forest death”), entered the German vocab­ulary to describe the worst cases. An exceptionally complex process in­volving soil building, nutrient uptake, and symbiotic relations among fungi, insects, mammals, and flora — which were, and still are, not en­tirely understood — was apparently disrupted, with serious conse­quences. Most of these consequences can be traced to the radical sim­plicity of the scientific forest.

The deterministic belief that these “illegible” details — in this case, literally, “in the weeds” — don’t matter will eventually come back to haunt you. “Nature,” as Dr. Ian Malcolm put it in Jurassic Park, “finds a way”.

But the high modernist believes the future is solvable, and the certainty of that better future justifies the disruption and “short-term side-effects” of the grand plan to get there.

The alternative is an iterative, ground-up, organic management by those on the ground — you know, us — who are best placed and best incentivised to use judgment and experience to solve their own problems and improve their own lot as they personally perceive it.

Their “read” of the landscape will be necessarily far richer and more detailed than the State’s. This is both far more effective for society, and far scarier for administrators: they have less control over progress, less sight of it, (therefore) less to do, and a harder job justifying the rent they extract (in a government, this is called a “tax”; in a corporation, it is executive compensation) for providing their “vital” administration.

Once the desire for comprehensive urban planning is established, the logic of uniformity and regimentation is well nigh inexorable. Cost-effectiveness contributes to this tendency. Every concession to diversity is likely to entail an increase in time and budgetary cost.


Another cost of this ideology is diversity in the things so regularised. That diversity and inclusion is the cause célèbre du jour, in the public and private sectors, sharpens the irony: since the typical approach to delivering diversity chimes with this desire for narratising legibility and high-modernism.

Diversity ought, you’d think, to be hard to pin down, its manifestations being naturally — well — diverse. It is the very benefit that accrues from the range of our differences and the interaction of our unique perspectives and lived experiences.

But, to get a handle it, organisations must make diversity legible. They do this by defining it in a limited and homogenous way. They gather data from their staff on that limited metric — to make it more legible, so that the organisation can propagate statistics about its “improving” diversity. Thus, “diversity” as the administration knows it is a formalised, homogenised, parameterised and regularised proxy of diversity, and no attention is paid to how this proxy diversity affects the behaviour of people in the organisation, for good or ill.

In any case, the point is clear: if imposed proxies can prompt the wealthy to restructure their tax affairs and French peasants to fill in their windows, so can it prompt those in a commercial organisation to behave in similarly counterproductive ways. There is an argument that whole segments of the infrastructure have developed for precisely that reason. Legal included.

An authoritarian state and prostrate civil society

Scott’s last two criteria are opposite sides of the same coin: an authoritarian state that can coerce the society it manages to bring its high modernist ideals to bear, and a subjugated population that cannot resist it.

Scott was writing in 1998, a few years after the collapse of communism, when Francis Fukuyama and others were declaring the end of history, the last man, all battles won and so forth, so was a little shoe-shuffly about this. He needn’t have been: not only have we seen the return of authoritarian governments and prostrate populations — the entire planet suffered eighteen months of solitary confinement without a great deal of complaint let us not forget — and the authoritarian disposition amongst the executive class and the supine one amongst the general population have always been a feature of the corporate sector.

Every “meaningful” aspect of your performance and your role is reduced to a data point: ID, location, salary, rank, position, performance, reporting line, holiday entitlement, sick leave, service catalog, performance objectives. All the work you do: the subtle analysis, the advocacy, the creative solutions, the informal network and ineffable judgments — all is, in the eyes of the executive, reduced to a grade, a rank and a number.

As for the high modernist ideal, well, this entire site is ironic homage to that, but orthodox “business strategy” presumes we can solve all conundrums in the landscape and then proceed sedately and without the need to be troubled by turbulent subject matter experts thereafter.


Talk of subject matter experts brings us nicely to Scott’s closing, where he introduces the concept, missing from the high modernist canon, of metis.

This is hard to describe — folk wisdom, knowhow, Odyssean cunning, experience — but in the corporate world it struck me as most resembling expertise. Ingenuity, problem-solving, lateral thinking; smarts for figuring out what to do on the fly if you are in a jam.

It is something that high modernists would abolish— their theory being that loose cannon employees making snap decisions is potentially catastrophic. Jams of this sort can and should be avoided by appropriate planning and the right algorithm: if you get the playbook right, subject matter experts aren’t needed.

Scott makes two interesting observations here. The first is that “metis” is much more efficient than an algorithm, even if you can find one to work. This is why (pace dear old Richard Dawkins) we catch flying baseballs not by solving differential equations in our heads, but by using the “gaze heuristic”.[2] You could — if you accept the reductionist stance — solve any problem with the right calculations, but the necessary data and processing power would be huge. Practical knowledge, on the other hand — metis — is “as economical and accurate as it needs to be, no more and no less, for addressing the problem at hand.”

This is the difference, says Scott, between Red Adair[3] and an articled clerk. There are some skills you cannot acquire except through experience: learning to sail, ride a bike, play a musical instrument or extinguish a civilisation-threatening oil well fire. You could spend as much time as you like with textbooks, but you will never master that kind of skill until you have done enough practical rehearsal.

This brings us to the last connection: complexity theory, systems analysis and normal accidents.

All of these come to the same conclusion: if you are dealing with tightly-coupled complex systems that interact in non-linear ways, no matter how much data you have or how sophisticated are your tools, mindless algorithms will not work. The only way to manage these risks is with experts on the ground, whom you empower to exercise judgment and make provisional decisions, which they can adjust as a situation unfolds. That is, with their metis.

If, in your high-modernist zeal, you have eliminated all those with metis from your operation, you may get by in times of peace and equity but, come the revolution, you are stuffed.

See also


  1. Charles Perrow’s Normal Accidents theory; systems theory as expounded by Donella H. Meadows, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
  2. Gerd Gigerenzer is fantastic on this.
  3. Younger readers may not remember Red Adair but in the Seventies, he was a proper Boys’ Own fire-fighting hero.