Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James Scott


  1. Scott is skeptical of “high modernism” which centers around the belief that societies can be designed and operated according to scientific principles. He digs into various means in which the state imposes schemes in order to make it easy and convenient for the state to keep track of things and maintain order. However, this is not always good for the people, but it does make societies “legible.” Census data, standardized weights and measures, and uniform languages make it easier to tax and control the population, for example

Key Takeaways

  1. State projects of simplification and legibility
    1. Planned social services always fail as they can’t possibly take into account all variables and things emerge anyway
    2. Optimizing for one variable to be as efficient as possible often leads to disaster. See monoculture farming. The state does something similar in that it takes what is locally optimal (but illegible) and transforms it into something that doesn’t represent reality but is legible
  2. Cities, people, and language
  3. Social engineering of rural settlement and production
  4. Taming nature – an agriculture of simplicity and legibility

What I got out of it

  1. The desire for control, ease of use, and “legibility” often lead to overly simplistic and perhaps even harmful outcomes. What is good for the macro is not always good for the micro. Felt like the same theme simply shared in half a dozen various examples. I had heard a lot about this book, so if I missed something you found hugely valuable, please reach out!