Richman on Scott
How to Think Like the Ruling Class
Understanding the origins of state power
by Sheldon Richman
Reason, April 1, 2012
In the beginning ruling classes had a problem. It will be familiar to
those acquainted with the Austrian critique of central economic
planning: Rulers could not know what they needed to know to do the job
they wanted to do. Societies, even seemingly primitive ones, are complex
networks held together by unarticulated—and largely
inarticulable—know-how (mētis). That presents a formidable obstacle to
centralized rule, which requires minimum resistance from the ruled if it
is to endure.
Rulers, however, were not without recourse. If they couldn’t know the
society they aspired to rule, they could (try to) shape it into
something they could know. To use the term James C. Scott uses in his
book Seeing Like a State, they could strive to make society "legible" in
order to make it controllable.
Scott came to understand this point when studying "why the state has
always seemed to be the enemy of ‘people who move around.’" He
discovered that "[n]omads and pastoralists (such as Berbers and
Bedouins), hunter-gatherers, Gypsies, vagrants, homeless people,
itinerants, runaway slaves, and serfs have always been a thorn in the
side of states. Efforts to permanently settle these mobile peoples
(sedentarization) seemed to be a perennial state project—perennial, in
part, because it so seldom succeeded." He adds:
"The more I examined these efforts at sedentarization, the more I came
to see them as a state’s attempt to make a society legible, to arrange
the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of
taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion. . . . I began to
see legibility as a central problem in statecraft."
The problem facing rulers ran deep: "The premodern state was, in many
crucial respects, partially blind; it knew precious little about its
subjects, their wealth, their landholdings and yields, their location,
their very identity. It lacked anything like a detailed ‘map’ of its
terrain and its people. It lacked, for the most part, a measure, a
metric, that would allow it to ‘translate’ what it knew into a common
standard necessary for a synoptic view."
Apprehending this problem was like shining a light on phenomena hitherto
obscured by shadow. "Suddenly, processes as disparate as the creation of
permanent last names, the standardization of weights and measures, the
establishment of cadastral surveys and population registers, the
invention of freehold tenure, the standardization of language and legal
discourse, the design of cities, and the organization of transportation
seemed comprehensible as attempts at legibility and simplification."
He compares such these devices aimed at legibility and simplification,
which he calls "high modernism," to scientific forestry, in which
resource management is strictly determined by the need for revenue. His
list will raise eyebrows among us classical-liberal devotees of
spontaneous social processes. Are we to believe that last names,
freehold tenure, and standardization of weights, measures, language, and
legal discourse were foisted on societies by rulers for their own
The story isn’t quite so simple, but it is close. Scott acknowledges
that the growth of commerce had a hand in the promotion of some of these
devices. But his historical evidence shows that things we have tended to
regard as the spontaneous products of liberal progress were in fact
contrivances to benefit rulers. This is not to say these institutions
are bad in themselves or that none of them would have evolved
spontaneously. That seems unlikely. But it is reasonable to think they
would have evolved differently in important respects had they not been
driven primarily a quest for social control. The contrasting
processes—spontaneous order versus what F. A. Hayek called
"constructivist rationalism"—would seem to guarantee this. It is
unfortunate that those institutions were born in association with
tyranny, prompting resistance from average people who felt imposed on by
Let’s pause to appreciate the depth of the rulers’ problem. What we
learn from Scott is similar to what we learn from Elinor Ostrom, the
Nobel laureate who studies the innovative ways that people communally
manage common-pool resources without government assistance. Left to
their own devices, people jointly find ingenious methods of overcoming
obstacles to the efficient management of land and other resources. This
category of solutions demonstrates that simple one-person/one-parcel is
not the only private alternative to State ownership of resources.
Moreover the number of potential solutions is effectively limitless.
Thus how a given community will grapple with a given situation is
inherently unpredictable. People really are the creative,
entrepreneurial beings acting in an open-ended world that Israel
Kirzner, inspired by Mises, describes.
That’s what made the rulers’ job so tough as nation-states were formed,
driving them to measures intended to simplify the societies they wished
to control and, yes, also to establish national markets. Scott writes:
"[L]ocal practices of measurement and landholding were "illegible" to
the state in their raw form. They exhibited a diversity and intricacy
that reflected a great variety of purely local, not state, interests.
That is to say, they could not be assimilated into an administrative
grid without being either transformed or reduced to a convenient, if
partly fictional, shorthand. . . . Backed by state power through
records, courts, and ultimately coercion, these state fictions
transformed the reality they presumed to observe, although never so
thoroughly as to precisely fit the grid. . . . In place of a welter of
incommensurable small communities, familiar to their inhabitants but
mystifying to outsiders, there would rise a single national society
perfectly legible from the center."
The great classical-liberal Benjamin Constant (1767-1830), whom Scott
quotes, understood this well:
"The conquerors of our days, peoples or princes, want their empire to
possess a unified surface over which the superb eye of power can wander
without encountering any inequality which hurts or limits its view. The
same code of law, the same measures, the same rules, and if we could
gradually get there, the same language; that is what is proclaimed as
the perfection of the social organization…. The great slogan of the day
Nowhere is the process more clear than in the case of land tenure.
Indigenously evolved customary rights over land made taxation based on
income and holdings nigh impossible. It was difficult (if possible at
all) to know who owned what. Based on his research, Scott hypothesizes a
village in which families have a complex of rights and responsibilities
regarding cropland, grazing land, trees, and fallen fruit and tree
limbs, with customs addressing all manner of situations, including what
is to be done during shortages and famines. The customs, however, are
not static. They "are better understood as a living, negotiated tissue
of practices which are continually being adapted to new ecological and
social circumstances—including, of course, power relations." (Scott has
no wish to romanticize such arrangements: "[T]hey are usually riven with
inequalities based on gender, status, and lineage.")
What’s a ruler who wants to impose taxes on his realm to do? While the
people within communities understand their customs, outsiders do not.
"The mind fairly boggles at the clauses, sub-clauses, and
sub-sub-clauses that would be required to reduce these practices to a
set of regulations that an administrator might understand, never mind
enforce. . . . [E]ven if the practices could be codified, the resulting
code would necessarily sacrifice much of their plasticity and subtle
adaptability. The circumstances that might provoke a new adaptation are
too numerous to foresee, let alone specify, in a regulatory code. That
code would in effect freeze a living process."
And what of the next village, and the village after that?
Obviously, the ruling class cannot tolerate this "cacophony of local
property regulations." An alternative needed to be found—and it was.
"Indeed," Scott writes, "the very concept of the modern state
presupposes a vastly simplified and uniform property regime that is
legible and hence manipulable from the center."
The answer was "individual freehold tenure." Scott writes: "Modern
freehold tenure is tenure that is mediated through the state and
therefore readily decipherable only to those who have sufficient
training and a grasp of the state statutes."
"[T]he complex tenure arrangements of customary practice are reduced to
freehold, transferrable title. In an agrarian setting, the
administrative landscape is blanketed with a uniform grid of homogeneous
land, each parcel of which has a legal person as owner and hence
taxpayer. How much easier it then becomes to assess such property and
its owner on the basis of its acreage, its soil class, the crops it
normally bears, and its assumed yield than to untangle the thicket of
common property and mixed forms of tenure."
The device for accomplishing this was the cadastral map. "The cadastral
map and property register are to the taxation of land as the maps and
tables of the scientific forester were to the fiscal exploitation of the
forest . . . ," Scott writes. "Just as the scientific forester needed an
inventory of trees to realize the commercial potential of the forest, so
the fiscal reformer needed a detailed inventory of landownership to
realize the maximum, sustainable revenue yield."
For the map to be of use, the facts on the ground had to be made to
conform to it. In other words, the lives of the inhabitants were to be
disrupted to satisfy the ruler’s appetite for revenue.
"The mode of production in such communities was simply incompatible with
the assumption of individual freehold tenure implicit in a cadastral
map. . . . The state’s case against communal forms of land tenure,
however, was based on the correct observation that it was fiscally
illegible and hence fiscally less productive. . . . [T]he historical
resolution has generally been for the state to impose a property system
in line with its fiscal grid."
This is not to say all went as planned. Scott points out that people in
the communities often continued to use their land as before, ignoring
the scheme their rulers attempted to impose. But the rulers were
undeterred. They proceeded as though their models reflected what was
essential about reality—much as macroeconomists do today. Of course
their tax decrees had unintended consequences. For example, the
eighteenth-century French tax on doors and windows, which were used as
proxies for determining the size of houses, encouraged the construction
of homes with few doors and windows.
The people’s ability to work around their rulers, however, was limited.
Social life was disrupted, resources were extracted, and communities
were prevented from further spontaneous development. How the world would
have looked in the absence of ruling classes, one can only speculate.