Saturday, December 10, 2016

Two Visions of Anarchy–My Exchange With James Scott

A few weeks ago I had a debate on anarchy with James Scott, a writer whose books I find interesting. Robert Ellickson was moderator cum participant. It has now been webbed.

I have read two of Scott's books. One, The Art of Not Being Governed, is about the existence of extensive stateless areas in South-east Asia over a very long period of time. From the standpoint of the adjacent states, the stateless areas, typically hills, mountains, and swamps, are populated by primitive people who have not yet developed far enough to create or join states--"our ancestors." By Scott's account, on the other hand, much of the population of the stateless areas is descended from people who were once in states, much of the population of the states from people who were once stateless. The pattern as he sees it is a long term equilibrium based on the difficulty of maintaining a state when population densities are low and transport and communication slow. When a state is doing well it pulls in people, whether voluntary immigrants or the captives of slave raids, from the adjacent stateless areas. When the state is doing badly, the flow of people goes in the other direction, fleeing taxes, conscription, and other benefits of being ruled. 

Part of what I found interesting was Scott's discussion of features of stateless areas that make it unprofitable for adjacent states to annex them. It was very much an economist's point of view and suggested an approach to the question of how a modern anarchist society could avoid annexation by adjacent states that I had not considered. In my writing I have described that as the problem of national defense. What Scott's account implies is that military defense is only one part of a broader set of solutions.

The other book I read is Seeing Like a State. Its central theme is the ways in which states have attempted to reorganize societies in order to make them easier to rule, to make the territory look more like the rulers' necessarily simplified map. It is harder to rule a country if the people do not all speak the same language. It is harder to tax land if the country contains a wide variety of systems of land tenure and units of measurement. It is harder to keep track of who has or has not been conscripted if there is no uniform and consistent system of names. It may be possible, sometimes has been possible, to change those features of a country to make it easier to rule and tax.

A secondary theme is the amount of damage that states have done in the process of revising societies to be easier to rule and ruling them. While it was obvious to the author that his account would be attractive to market libertarians such as myself, he went to some trouble to make it clear that he was not himself one of those icky market libertarians. His part of the exchange linked to above may help suggest why.

Another theme that he devotes considerable attention to is what he describes as "high modernism," the belief that modern science lets us figure out how everyone should do things and, once we have figured it out, we should make them do it that way. Examples include planned cities, Soviet collective farms and attempts by first world agronomists to tell third world peasants what to plant.

Adam Smith had something to say on the subject:
The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it.


Anonymous said...

I picked up Seeing like a State a week or so ago at Prometheus Books, a Riverside bookstore that specializes in libertarianism, atheism, philosophy, science, and science fiction (I described it to a friend and she said, "A bookstore designed for you!"). It was in my mind because you had recommended it, though I had heard of it before. I found it really interesting, especially the chapter contrasting Le Corbusier with Jane Jacobs. And like you, I was struck by Scott's repeated efforts to disassociate himself from writers like (the elder) Friedman and Hayek—even though Hayek's "The Result of Human Action but Not of Human Design" perfectly complements some of Scott's central ideas.

I was struck by his criticism of markets as reducing the features of commodities to the single dimension of price, which was central to Marx's arguments before him. Of course it's not really true; price is what we look at for any given commodity, but the decision that two things are the same commodity or different commodities is based on all the other information. But it also seems to me that that focus on price information is, in 21st century terms, a means of saving bandwidth, so that essential information can be transmitted widely through a huge society without inundating everyone with unmanageable masses of information. In fact I think this is one aspect of the economic calculation argument against socialism.

Peter said...

I found your example about dollars vs votes during the QA a bit confusing. Although one reason is that English is not my main language and I had some trouble hearing what you said. But I wonder if maybe this would be a better example.

A has $15 and B has $5. They both go to the local apple market. There are 100 apples. A gets 75 apples and B gets 25 apples.

A has 15 votes and B has 5. They vote 100 times on who gets an apple. A gets 100 apples and B gets 0.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the off topic, but you mentioned on SSC a few weeks ago of a hypothetical South Bay meetup. Did that ever crystallize?

Peter said...

Thanks David! I missed that second part.

David Friedman said...


That's part of it. But the other part is that B gets to choose what he spends is dollars on, and so can focus his spending on what is most important to him.

A and B go to the market, which sells both bread (cheap calories) and candy (expensive calories). A gets five dollars worth of bread and ten dollars worth of candy. B gets five dollars worth of bread. Both are equally well fed, which is the most important thing, but A gets the luxury of candy as well.

(Just revised to fix a mistake my wife pointed out)

10:38 AM, December 14, 2016 Delete

David Friedman said...


No meetup. There didn't seem to be a lot of interest. Maybe I'll do one sometime next month.

Malcolm Kirkpatrick said...

Congratulations, Mr. Ambassador! Looks just like you.

machinephilosophy said...

The Machinery of Freedom revolutionized my thinking and my life, decades ago.

Buying the 3rd edition asap.

Mises/Hayek/Rothbard/ > Milton & Rose Friedman > The Machinery of Freedom > Ideas Blog > END. */Program complete/*

Thank you.

Matthew Munoz said...

I cited your Positive Account of Property Rights paper a while back while trying to show that free entry in rights creation economizes on transaction costs:

I think you used to have a blurb somewhere about not knowing whether it was your most trivial or best paper, I just want to toss in my two cents and say it's pretty damned good.

Unknown said...

Haha, I believe you have improved the analogy's clarity.

I believe I understood it after a second listen, but I would trip up when conveying the point to others.


Unknown said...

David Friedman, I was hoping you were going to include a response to Ellickson. I'm glad he was there, but it seems format or time left his contribution entirely neglected.

He mentions responses to Coase's paper that are news to me. Would you agree we might never see a marvel like the Brooklyn Bridge if not for taxation?

David Friedman said...


There was some sort of a messup on scheduling that left us with less time than we were supposed to have.

The original (pre-automobile) Pennsylvania Turnpike was a marvel like the Brooklyn Bridge, and it was not built by taxation. I don't believe the original NY subways were either.