A few months ago, I began to notice that all the smart people I knew, including several readers of this blog, were recommending that I read James Scott’s Seeing Like a State. By happy coincidence, Cato’s monthly magazine, Cato Unbound decided to do a symposium on the subject and asked me to participate. Scott himself wrote the opening essay, which provides a capsule summary of his book:
It is both striking and important to recognize how relatively little the pre-modern state actually knew about the society over which it presided. State officials had only the most tenuous idea of the population under their jurisdiction, its movements, its real property, wealth, crop yields, and so forth. Their degree of ignorance was directly proportional to the fragmentation of their sources of information. Local currencies and local measures of capacity (e.g., the bushel) and length (the ell, the rod, the toise) were likely to vary from place to place and with the nature of the transacting parties. The opacity of local society was, of course, actively maintained by local elites as one effective means of resistance to intrusions from above.
Having little synoptic, aggregate intelligence about the manpower and resources available to it, officials were apt either to overreach in their exactions, touching off flight or revolt, or to fail to mobilize the resources that were, in fact, available. To follow the process of state-making, then, is to follow the conquest of illegibility. The account of this conquest — an achievement won against stiff resistance — could take many forms, for example: the creation of the cadastral survey and uniform property registers, the invention and imposition of the meter, national censuses and currencies, and the development of uniform legal codes.
The essay is well worth reading in full.
In my response, I consider how his argument maps to the modern debate over technology policy. Read on to see what 19th Century German forestry techniques can teach us about the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and software patents.
After the formal responses are in (Donald Boudreaux and Brad DeLong are the other two participants), there will be a free-form response period where we discuss among ourselves. So if you’re not already a Cato Unbound reader (which you should be) I encourage you to add it to your RSS reader for the month.