Seeing Like a State Author James C. Scott on Cato Unbound

by on September 9, 2010 · 1 comment

Don’t miss the current issue of Cato Unbound, which explores the ideas in author James C. Scott’s essential book, Seeing Like a State. Scott’s opening essay, “The Trouble With the View From Above,” captures many of the ideas from the book.

I stumbled across Scott when I was researching my book on identification policy, Identity Crisis. As Scott observes, naming systems for people have been altered over time from vernacular to formal, the latter serving the needs of governments and large institutions. The next step in the process is numbering (well underway, the Social Security number) and full-fledged national ID and possibly world ID systems. Such systems would be used to peg humans into their place in governmental, economic, and social machinery, obviously at a high cost to liberty and social mobility.

Twice in the paragraph above I used the passive voice to hide the actor. It was governments, of course, that pushed formal naming systems, but both governments and corporations will use our increasingly formalized and machine-processable naming systems to assign people their roles. Scott is far from a libertarian battler against government power, and he specifically disclaims having Hayekian aims in his book. This makes it all the more powerful and opens the door to interesting pathways of thought, parallels between corporate environmental destruction and government intervention in economic life, for example.

I’m keen to see the comments that follow Scott’s essay, from George Mason University economist Don Boudreaux; Brad Delong of UC Berkeley; and TLF alum Timothy B. Lee, a Cato adjuct and scholar at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy. Cato Unbound. Go.

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