R Street is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit organization. It believes that freedom and free markets work better than the alternatives. R Street can fairly be described as “free market” or “libertarian.” Insofar as R Street looks to thinkers like John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and James C. Scott as guides to good public policy, it might fairly be described as part of the political right. At the same time, R Street is concerned—passionately—with making sure government does its work in an efficient, effective manner. Above all, R Street is much more interested in solving problems and working with others than in winning political fights.
Ah, a libertarian think tank citing James Scott as an inspiration.
James Scott is a great writer and scholar. But I’m not surprised that he would also inspire conservatives. Anarchism does tremendous intellectual work for conservatism, especially at its libertarian end. Anarchism is ultimately a troubled ideology with no possibility of ever achieving meaningful change in society. The reason for that is that while everyday humans can create behavioral changes, it takes the state to codify and enforce those changes and always has. We might all think gays are the equal of heterosexuals in 2013. But it’s only in 13 or so states that our beliefs on that front have any legal meaning at all. I guess in an anarchist paradise we will all come to accept other people as they are. In the real world, hate and intolerance reign supreme and must be controlled through legal means.
The state is central to any functioning society and undercutting the state, whether by Scott or anyone else, ultimately serves a conservative project more effectively than any anarchist project because one has access to power and the other never will. So conservatives can point to Seeing Like a State and talk about state failures with all sorts of concrete examples. They can use that to reject state intervention anywhere they want. It’s high modernism! It’s state oppression! Look at the people killed in Soviet collectivization! Brasilia! Tanzanian villagization!
The book is brilliant and demonstrates the perils of the outer limits of state control over the citizenry. The downside of Seeing Like a State is that it’s highly incomplete as a critique of the state. Scott picks out the worst possible actions of centralized states and ignores the many necessary and wonderful things that states accomplish by serving as a way for citizens to change the structure of their society and have that backed up with the force of law. In other words, no state, no anti-lynching laws. This doesn’t mean the state is perfect. Obviously. But it does mean it is absolutely necessary to positive and concrete change that transforms society.
Of course conservatives are misreading Scott and taking from it what they want. But who cares? They don’t. Conservatives has intentionally misread Adam Smith and James Madison for 200 years. Why would they not intentionally misread James Scott?
One of the greatest fears I have about the modern age is the distrust of the state on both the right and the left. This vastly helps the right because it undermines the one effective institution that has created the most concrete positive change for progressives, racial minorities, women, and working-class people in history. Take that way and what do we have left? Farmers’ markets and bicycle repair collectives?