07 July 2012

"Seeing Like a State"

I haven't read Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, by James C Scott, published in 1999. (There is a good review of it here.) The description on the Amazon page sums it up: 
Centrally managed social plans misfire, Scott argues, when they impose schematic visions that do violence to complex interdependencies that are not -- and cannot -- be fully understood. Further, the success of designs for social organization depends upon the recognition that local, practical knowledge is as important as formal, epistemic knowledge. The author builds a persuasive case against "development theory" and imperialistic state planning that disregards the values, desires, and objections of its subjects. He identifies and discusses four conditions common to all planning disasters: administrative ordering of nature and society by the state; a "high-modernist ideology" that places confidence in the ability of science to improve every aspect of human life; a willingness to use authoritarian state power to effect large-scale interventions; and a prostrate civil society that cannot effectively resist such plans.
I've argued similarly in the past. Our current way of solving social and environmental problems is, in essence, centrally managed. The result is something like a policy monoculture, and the results are predictably lamentable. But the important distinction to make is that between centrally planned outcomes and centrally managed ways of achieving them. We all want to see reduced poverty, the ending of violent political conflict, and universal literacy, for examples. Government does a good job at articulating our wishes in these and other areas. But centrally planning the ways of achieving these goals just will not work. We need diverse, adaptive solutions; ones that take into account circumstances that vary with time and space. Central planning can't do that and the results of its failure are widespread and tragic. 

Which is why I advocate Social Policy Bonds. Under a bond regime we would set goals and contract out their achievement to people motivated to investigate and implement the only the most efficient projects. These projects would adapt to changing circumstances, and be sensitive to local conditions. Under a bond regime, the complex interdependencies that Scott writes, which cannot be understood by government, need not be understood by government. Instead, via an automatic system of cascading incentives, Social Policy Bonds would encourage diverse, adaptive initiatives that would contribute to achieving our large-scale - even global - goals.

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