Arnt Gulbrandsen
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Seeing like a state

This is the third blog posting in three days. The intelligent reader may have guessed it: I'm tidying my office again. Yes I am. One desk is tidy already, and while working on the second desk, I found a book called Seeing like a state in one of the piles.

There was a note sticking out of page 352, so of course I opened the book and started reading.

The book is a strong condemnation of various well-intended reforms and schemes. Why did so-and-so agrarian reform fail? Because the reformers expected reality to match a simplistic model and when it didn't, they tried to bend reality to their model instead of the other way around. In some cases reality eventually bent (at considerable cost to the people whose lives were being reformed), in other cases not. What happened wasn't pleasant, and the book's description is never pleasant either. (That describes some of the reforms in the book, not all. The book is worth reading, by the way.)

Page 352 is near the start of chapter 10, Conclusions, and I had marked a section starting with this passage:

This rather blanket condemnation must be tempered, especially in the case of social systems, by at least four considerations. First, and most important, the social orders they were designed to supplant were typically so manifestly unjust and oppressive that almost any new order might seem preferable. Second, … and it goes on for pages.

I loved it when I first read it and I loved it when I reread it now. Those reformers may have been wrong and in some cases predictably so, but the author makes a real attempt to understand and describe their reasons fairly, in a book that condemns their actions. In this decade of polarisation and demonisation, I want to read more like that.