David R. Henderson  

DeLong on Scott's Seeing Like a State

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I was talking to an economist friend today about Berkeley economist Brad DeLong and I told him that my two favorite DeLong pieces are his "Cornucopia," which I have blogged about, and his review of James Scott's Seeing Like a State. My friend hadn't heard of the latter.

Here are some excerpts to tantalize the reader.

The second paragraph:

On one level, it is an extraordinary well-written and well-argued tour through the various forms of damage that have been done in the twentieth century by centrally-planned social-engineering projects--by what James Scott calls "high modernism" and the attempt to use high modernist principles and practices to build utopia. As such, every economist who reads it will see it as marking the final stage in the intellectual struggle that the Austrian tradition has long waged against apostles of central planning. Heaven knows that I am no Austrian--I am a liberal Keynesian and a social democrat--but within economics even liberal Keynesian social democrats acknowledge that the Austrians won victory in their intellectual debate with the central planners long ago.

The part where DeLong points out that Scott, whatever his protestations, is making points that Hayek had made earlier:
No one can finish reading Scott without believing--as Austrians have argued for three-quarters of a century--that centrally-planned social-engineering is not an appropriate mechanism for building a better society.

But on a second level, it is an act of displacement. Friedrich Hayek, after all, won the Nobel Prize in Economic Science for making many of Scott's key arguments: that the bureaucratic planner with a map does not know best, and can not move humans and their lives around the territory as if on a chessboard to create utopia; that the local, practical knowledge possessed by the person-on-the-spot is important; that the locus of decision-making must remain with those who have the craft to understand the situation; that any system that functions at all must create and maintain a space for those on the spot to use their local, practical knowledge (even if the hierarchs of the system pretend not to notice this flexibility). These key arguments are well known: they are the core of the Austrian economists' critique of central planning.

From one perspective, this is a compliment to the Austrians: their arguments are powerful and applicable, and it is striking that others looking at the same problem come up with their conclusions. From another perspective, this is odd: we all think better thoughts when we explicitly recognize and acknowledge our intellectual roots. (italics in original)


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COMMENTS (2 to date)
Todd Moodey writes:

I've long wanted Russ to have James Scott on EconTalk. I think it would make for a fascinating discussion!

Rick Hull writes:

What a refreshing post from DeLong!

It's much more in line with the thrust of a prior post of his, than the payload of that post itself.

For all the things Keynes wrote about Hayek and vice versa, one wonders what would be on the agenda of someone choosing this from Hayek:

Are we not even told that, since 'in the long run we are all dead', policy should be guided entirely by short run considerations? I fear that these believers in the principle of apres nous le déluge may get what they have bargained for sooner than they wish…

... and summarizing it as "Derp. No-class. Derp."

DeLong is 100% correct in that post that "you can tell the good guys who respect argument and evidence from the bad guys who do not". I'm tempted to now count him in the good guys.

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