Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed summarizes the key dangers of centrally managed social engineering projects. Its a bit dense, but well worth it. It shows similarities between many seemingly different disasters caused by top-down control and central planning. Case studies include modernist architecture, Soviet collectivization, herding or rural people into villages in Africa,and early errors in scientific agriculture, etc.
Anyone trying to build and manage an organization needs to be aware of the lessons in this book.
One key lesson is that practical knowledge, informal processes, and improvisation in the face of unpredictability are indispensable.
Formal scheme was parasitic on informal processes that alone, it could not create or maintain. The the degree that the formal scheme made no allowance for those processes or actually suppressed them, it failed both its intended beneficiaries and ultimately its designers as well. “
Radically simplified designs for social organization seem to court the same risks of failure courted by radically simplified designs for natural environments.
It makes the case for resilience of both social and natural diversity, and a strong case for limits about what can be known about complex social order. Avoid reductive social science.
Four elements of centrally planned disasters
According to the book, there four elements necessary for a full fledged disaster to be caused by state initiated social engineering.
- Administrative ordering of nature and society
- “High Modernist Ideology” a faith that borrowed the legitimacy of science and technology. Uncritical unskeptical public and therefore unscientific optimism about possibilities for comprehensive planning of human settlement and production. Often with aesthetic terms too.
- Authoritarian state willing to use the full weight of its coercive power for #2
- Prostrate civil society lacking capacity to resist these plans.
“By themselves they are unremarkable tools of modern statecraft; they are as vital to the maintenance of our welfare and freedom as they are to the designs of a would be modern despot. They undergird the concept of citizenship and the provision of social welfare just as they might undergird a policy of rounding up undesirable minorities.”
The discussion of the ecological disasters caused by forestry regulation in 18th and 19th century Germany is instructive:
The metaphorical value of this brief account of scientific production forestry is that it illustrates the dangers of dismembering an exceptionally complex and poorly understood set of relations and processes in order to isolate a single element of instrumental value. The instrument, the knife, that carved out the new, rudimentary forest was the razor sharp interest in the production of a single commodity. Everything that interfered with the efficient production of the key commodity was implacably eliminated. Everything that seemed unrelated to efficient production was ignored. Having come to see the forest as a commodity, scientific forestry set about refashioning it as a commodity machine. Utilitarian simplification in the forest was an effective way of maximizing wood production in the short and intermediate term. Ultimately, however, its emphasis on yield and paper profits, its relatively short time horizon, and , above all, the vast array of consequences it had resoloutley bracketed came back to haunt it.
Department of unintended consequences
I like to joke about wanting to start a department of unintended consequences to oversee economic policy. Often central planners fail because they arrograntly fail to foresee unintended consequences of their policies.
“ the door and window tax established in France under the directory and abolished only in 1917 is a striking case in point. Its originator must have reasoned that the number of windows and doors in a dwelling was proportional to the dwelling a size. Thus a tax assessor need not enter the house or measure it but merely count the doors and windows. As a simple, workable formula, it was a brilliant stroke, but it was not without consequences. Peasant dwellings were subsequently designed or renovated with the formula in mind so as to have as few openings as possible. While the fiscal losses could be recouped by raising the tax per opening, the long-term effects on the health of the rural population lasted for more than a century. “
See also: Goodhart’s Law