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Policy failures

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(Bloomberg) — I’m sitting in on a class on public-policy failures at Johns Hopkins University.

What we’re reading this week: “Seeing Like a State,” by James C. Scott, chapters 1-5.

What we talked about: so much. The first thing I realized while sitting there is that I’m not going to be able to write up the whole discussion, which would be thousands of words of outline, and the thoughts it inspired. Instead, I’ll be hitting on a few highlights. For the rest, you’ll have to go to Hopkins and take a class with Steve Teles — which I highly recommend.

We spent a lot of time in this class discussing the title of Scott’s book.

Well, not exactly. We spent a lot of time discussing what it means to “see like a state,” given that states don’t, y’know, have eyes.

This seems like a trivial point. But it matters quite a lot. When ordinary human vision is working correctly, it consists of taking in the light bouncing off various objects in the natural world and interpreting it. A state, in order to see, first rearranges the natural world, and the social world that sits on top of it, to enhance its legibility for the state’s data-collecting apparatus.

So German forests were organized into neat rows, the better to organize workers to tend them and bureaucrats to study them and commercial interests to exploit them. “The high cost of living” is reduced to a single price index that the Bureau of Labor Statistics can publish on its website. Cities are reshaped into neat grids with consistent street names. The vast, teeming mass of human bodies in various states of improvement or decay are reduced to aggregate health indicators that public health physicians then try to influence still further with various campaigns.

Unfortunately, it often turns out that all the organic messiness they cleared away was an important part of the system. European forests, with their biodiversity reduced, lost soil nutrients and vital bacteria, and they didn’t produce as much. Scott’s book contains an impressive array of case studies about such failures.

For that reason, it’s often taken as a libertarian book. But as Teles points out, “Scott is not saying that the simplifications we make in order to grapple with complex systems are bad. He’s saying that they are dangerous.” Cities with street grids may be boring, but they’re still a good idea for large populations. On the other hand, take the sort of high modernist regimentation too far and you end up with those “tower in the park” housing projects that destroyed large swathes of previously vital urban areas, or Brasilia.

We also spent quite a lot of time talking about this tension between highly organized centralization and organic distributed knowledge as it pertains to revolutions. But, of course, this is more fundamentally a problem for all societies and the groups within them. I myself prefer organic, distributed networks wherever possible. But they are not always possible: The New York Police Department would not be more effective, or even necessarily less intrusive, as a cadre of independent vigilantes who rise up to fight crime as needed. A modern society cannot be run with an org chart that has Batman filling all its key roles.

My favorite portion of the discussion, however, was the end, when we talked about the way that people and groups respond when they’re told that their plan is not working out as intended. Basically, there are three responses you can have:

  • My plan was defective: I should change something.
  • The world is defective: The plan is great, but we clearly need to do even more of this.
  • The information is wrong, and my plan is actually working very well.

The first answer is rarely the one that people go to. Instead, planners tend to view their plans the way that 14-year- old boys view Axe body spray: If some is good, more will be even better. And as Teles pointed out, sometimes they’re right: The surge really was better for Iraq than the lower-intensity operations that preceded it. On the other hand, if you’re wrong, you might get the Ukrainian famine.

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