Brad DeLong on James Scott

DeLong reviews one of my favorite books, James Scott’s brilliant Seeing Like A State, and he gets at a tension in the book.

Yet even as he makes his central points, Scott appears unable to make contact with his intellectual roots—thus he is unable to draw on pieces of the Austrian argument as it has been developed over the past seventy years. Just as seeing like a state means that you cannot see the local details of what is going on, so seeing like James Scott seems to me that you cannot see your intellectual predecessors.

That the conclusion is so strong where the evidence is so weak is, I think, evidence of profound subconscious anxiety: subconscious fear that recognizing that one’s book is in the tradition of the Austrian critique of the twentieth century state will commit one to becoming a right-wing inequality-loving Thatcher-worshiping libertarian (even though there are intermediate positions: you can endorse the Austrian critique of central planning without rejecting the mixed economy and the social insurance state).

And when the chips are down, this recognition is something James Scott cannot do. At some level he wishes—no matter what his reason tells him—to take his stand on the side of the barricades with the revolutionaries and their tools to build utopia.

This is why it’s very important to me that I try to draw on insights from across the spectrum and from as many different disciplines and contexts as I can. Given my limited brainpower, I face obvious limitations in the attempt.