After I gave a short talk on We May Be Wrong, one man who heard me suggested I might want to read “Seeing Like a State,” by James C. Scott. Along with Scott’s more recent book, “Against the Grain,” it has had a profound effect on my thinking.
Scott is a Professor of Political Science and Anthropology at Yale. His subtitle, “How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed,” gives a clue to his thinking.
Seeing Like a State begins with a description of forestry practices in late eighteenth century Prussia and Saxony. The forest, Scott reminds us, was a complicated, diverse ecosystem, consisting not just of varieties of trees, but of bushes and smaller plants, of foliage that was useful for fodder and thatch, of twigs and branches from which bedding was made, of bark and roots for the making of medicines, of sap for making resins, of fruits and nuts available for consumption, of grasses, flowers, lichens, mosses, and vines – not to mention being a habitat for fauna from insects and frogs to birds and foxes and deer, and a place human beings used for hunting, gathering, trapping, magic, worship, refuge, poetry and (he didn’t mention it, but I will –) love.
But the German state was focused on a single aspect of the forest – the commercial value of its timber. In a series of steps recounted by Scott, the German state essentially redesigned its forests in order to maximize timber production and increase the wealth of the German state. The consequences ultimately proved disastrous – for the state, its citizens, and the forest itself.
From this and a variety of other examples, Scott generalizes: “Certain forms of knowledge and control require a narrowing of vision.” State action has frequently failed, says Scott, not because the particular state is politically leftist or rightist, wise or inept, forward or backward-thinking, but because its focus is the sort of abstract overview a state must adopt in order to manage a complex system based on whatever fundamental principles it chiefly values. The connection to WeMayBeWrong is suggested most strongly when Scott writes, “If the utilitarian state could not see the real, existing forest for the (commercial) trees, if its view of the forests was abstract and partial, it was hardly unique in this respect. Some level of abstraction is necessary for virtually all forms of analysis (my emphasis).”
If Scott’s next book is called “Thinking Like a Human Being,” I suspect I’ll like it, too. For isn’t some level of abstraction necessary, not just for all forms of state action, and all forms of analysis, but for all forms of communication? For all forms of thought? Isn’t it true that to make sense of things, we have to select certain attributes to focus on, to the exclusion of others? Aren’t we compelled to categorize? To deal in types rather than specifics? To oversimplify? Surely we can’t possibly think in terms of every dachshund on every street in every town in every country of the world, not to mention all the individual dogs of every other breed – especially if we’re going to start comparing them to cats and birds and lizards and apes. We can only get our mind around such large numbers of unique animals by lumping all those breeds and individuals together, ignoring all their differences, and speaking of “dogs.” How could it be otherwise?
In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes, “The often-used phrase ‘pay attention’ is apt: you dispose of a limited budget of attention that you can allocate to activities, and if you try to go beyond your budget, you will fail.” Or, as Daniel Gilbert writes in Stumbling on Happiness, “It is difficult to escape the focus of our own attention – difficult to consider what it is we may not be considering.”
We aggregate. We categorize. We stereotype. We oversimplify. As I see it, group unique things together based on certain similarities – despite other differences – is fundamental to the very way we think.
The lead story on the front page of last Sunday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch was about a twenty-six year old man named Ted. According to the article, Ted had gotten into hard drugs including opiates, cocaine, and heroin. He’d been fired from his job and had stolen from his girlfriend. He’d spent time in jail periodically for assault, grand larceny, and violating probation. A few days after release from jail, he entered a “sober house” for addicts seeking to beat their addictions. He signed a contract with the facility that laid out the rules, including curfews, twelve-step meetings, and a specific provision that use of drugs was grounds for immediate expulsion from the house.
As one official was quoted as saying, “These sober homes are not locked down jail cells. The kids come and go.” When Ted showed up at his sober house a week later acting suspiciously, a required drug test was positive for cocaine and morphine. When asked to submit to a drug search, Ted refused. In accordance with the contract he’d signed, he was told he had to leave the house. Together with another resident, he did. That was late on a Friday night.
On Saturday, Ted and the other man did some work for a landscaper. Saturday night, Ted was exchanging text messages with a girlfriend in Florida and with the landscaper, who was asking about Ted’s plans for Sunday. But on Sunday, Ted’s body was found on the side of a country road not far from where we live. He had died of an overdose of fentanyl, cocaine and heroin, presumably consumed later that Saturday night.
Alright – it’s a tragic story, but what does it have to do with Seeing Like a State? Or with WeMayBeWrong?
Ted’s picture was printed, rather large, on the front page of the paper, along with a headline that read, “The System that Was Trying to Help Him Crumbled.” The article’s subtitle was “Death in Chesterfield Highlights Gaps in Care for Addicts Living in Sober Homes.” According to the article, Ted’s grieving mother was “strongly critical” of the sober house’s conduct in telling him he had to leave, rather than releasing him to someone who could give him “proper care.” What that might have entailed and how it might have worked is far from clear to me. Apparently, calling a probation officer late on a Friday night is problematic. Even had he been reached, would Ted’s probation officer have been able to locate Ted, or do anything that would have led to saving Ted from his final overdose?
But what I find interesting is the acclaim of “experts” calling for a standardized fix to the system. Interviewed for the article, the head of an unrelated recovery program said “operators of recovery homes need to have policies for making sure residents get the care they need when they test positive for drugs.” The grieving mother posted a letter on another website to the effect that recovery facilities “MUST have a protocol, a plan of action” in such cases. When interviewed for the article, the President of the National Alliance for Recovery Residences said that all fifty states should have laws requiring all sober houses to be certified – by them (state affiliates of the N.A.R.R), or by organizations like them. Such certifications, he said, would be based on “clear policies,” “trained staff” and “approved standards.” The grieving mother’s complaints that the “system” had “crumbled” became the headline the Times-Dispatch gave to its coverage. That newspaper’s attention had caused the Virginia Association of Recovery Residences (V.A.R.R.) to schedule a vote, this coming month, “to create a uniform policy for what operators of sober homes should do when someone relapses.”
No less so than central governments, private organizations like the N.A.R.R. and V.A.R.R. meet, and analyze, and sometimes vote (depending on how democratic they are) to determine the best method of dealing with categories of problems. Once these entities identify “best methods,” they seek to encourage or require others to adhere to them. Hence the call for uniform policies, approved standards and “certifications” by these organizations. But in Ted’s case, amidst all the calls for uniformity, written policies, standards and certifications, I fail to see the connection between such proposals and the conduct of this particular house, and this particular drug addict. And I wonder whether all the sober houses of the world should be treating all the drug addicts of the world in a “uniform” manner when they relapse, as if all members of the category ought to be treated the same.
Understandably, the grief-stricken mother believes that releasing her son to “proper care” would have made a difference. Understandably, she believes that the “system crumbled.” It’s harder for me to understand why a newspaper headlines its story about Ted with that same diagnosis – that the lack of – or deficiency in – a “system” was the cause of the tragic event two days later. And I wonder why organizations like the Virginia and National A.R.R.’s see written policies, uniform standards and certificates of compliance as the answer to problems like Ted’s – until I remember that those same organizations would be the ones setting the standards and issuing the certificates – in other words, “thinking like states.”
But I don’t think it’s just states. Gilbert, again: “[M]uch of our behavior from infancy onward is simply an expression of [our] penchant for control. Before our butts hit the very first diaper, we already have a throbbing desire to suck, sleep, poop and make things happen… Toddlers squeal with delight when they knock over a stack of blocks, push a ball, or squash a cupcake on their forehead. Why?… The fact is that human beings come into the world with a passion for control…”
The questions raised by Ted’s tragic death and by Professor Scott’s books include whether uniform standards and systems imposed by any central authorities, public entities or large private corporations or associations, are capable of fully addressing the complexities and fluidity of the world. Large organizations, says Scott, can only operate based on uniform standards applied to categories shaped along lines that are capable of centralized, standardized administration. By their nature, standards are uniform across whol categories. They are also meant to be relatively permanent in the face of constant change – permanent in the sense of controlling things until some newer, wiser “standard” is discovered and deemed worthy of taking its place. But if the lack of uniform standards is the answer to Ted’s problems and the rest of the world’s problems, what do we make of the German approach to forestry? Of the widespread use of DDT? Of the failure of the Soviet Union? Of the unbridled use of petrochemicals by private industry? Of the increasing tendency for “superior” (but genetically uniform) corn to be planted all across America?
These days, science has become acutely aware of the dangers of monoculture when it comes to crops, wildflowers, bees, viruses, and all species of living things. It was standardization that killed the forests of Saxony. Diversity in the gene pool of flora and fauna is recognized as the best long term protection against an ever larger list of catastrophes – both the few that we’re aware of and the many we’re not. The Supreme Court has before it a case in which Harvard University stresses the importance of diversity in its admissions practices, and most of the universities in the country support Harvard as to that importance. . More and more, I hear scientists and psychologists speak of the impossibility of predicting the future, so that any scheme designed to protect us from the most visible threats may well subject us to others not yet perceived. Yet in the face of growing concerns about monoculture and the importance of diversity, cries for standardization and uniform solutions continue from people convinced they know what’s best for us all.
According to Scott, the tendency of authorities who’ve decided they “know what’s best” to impose those ideas uniformly, in a “one-size fits all” manner, is a serious problem, and whether those authorities are private or public, totalitarian or democratic, they do so only after over-simplifying the world. They design their systems like monocultures, giving precedence to a few priorities in an extremely complex and inter-dependent world that is, in the end, a forest (of one sort of another). “Certain forms of knowledge and control require a narrowing of vision.” “Some level of abstraction is necessary for virtually all forms of analysis.”
Or, to borrow a thought from Jean Paul Sartre, quoted by Scott: “Ideas cannot digest reality.”
Perhaps, yet another reason that we may be wrong.