December 3rd, 2019

pacificparlour

COMPLEXITY CONFOUNDS COORDINATION.

At first blush, it seems so simple.  Put yourself in the place of the Kaiser's shipbuilder.  It's a lot of trouble to sort out the tall timbers suitable for masts from among the wild growth of the boreal forests.  Wouldn't it be simpler, you muse (OK, in German) to set aside some land to plant and cultivate precisely the kind of tall timbers you need, and schnell, before the French or the English figure it out?  Or perhaps you are the Tsar's home secretary, and it occurs to you that the steppe is endless versts of similar glacial till, and devoting it all to grain will keep the masses sufficiently nourished that they won't rebel, or that they'll have some strength to keep the French or the Germans out.  Per corollary, mightn't there be lots of other opportunities for the man of system to organize and rationalize and otherwise improve the Human Condition?

The bad news, dear reader, is that there's always some Overlooked Element in all those grand plans.  Book Review No. 11 commends James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.  My opening paragraph identifies some of the foibles of Overweening Technocracy (my expression: Mr Scott uses "High Modern Authoritarianism" to refer to a similar phenomenon) that arise in his book.  Glacial till is great for growing mass quantities of staple crops, but don't try the same methods on raspberries (or arugula and kale?) or apply steppe-friendly methods to more southerly places that haven't been glaciated.  The man of system has to suppress tacit and local knowledge (see page 311 and following) and that doesn't turn out well, as we read at page 340.
What has proved to be truly dangerous to us and to our environment, I think, is the combination of the universalist pretensions of epistemic knowledge and authoritarian social planning. Such a combination has been at work in city planning, in Lenin's view of revolution (but not his practice), in collectivization in the Soviet Union, and in villagization in Tanzania.
"They all but guarantee their own practical failure."  Indeed.

In defense of the high-modernist approach, Mr Scott suggests, pages 352-353, that technocratic interventions often addressed "unjust and oppressive" existing orders (that old "good intentions" dodge?); that they often trafficked in "egalitarian, emancipatory" ideas (neglecting that the best form of emancipation might be in freedom to bet on emergence?); he notes that "dogged, day-to-day resistance" of the people subjected to the Wise Experts' schemes can cause the Experts either to be frustrated (sending in the tanks?) or to trim to local conditions.  Thus, although Mr Scott, an academic, has to make the obligatory disclaimer early on ("my bill of particulars against a certain kind of state is by no means a case for politically unfettered market coordination as urged by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman," page 8) that disclaimer says more about his lack of understanding of Hayek or Friedman (there being no such thing as politically unfettered market coordination or anything else) than it does about his understanding of the workings of technocrats who would prefer an exemption from market tests or political fetters, although that's what turns out badly.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)