In the beginning ruling classes had a problem. It will be familiar to those acquainted with the Austrian critique of central economic planning: Rulers could not know what they needed to know to do the job they wanted to do. Societies, even seemingly primitive ones, are complex networks held together by unarticulated—and largely inarticulable—know-how (mētis). That presents a formidable obstacle to centralized rule, which requires minimum resistance from the ruled if it is to endure.
Rulers, however, were not without recourse. If they couldn’t know the society they aspired to rule, they could (try to) shape it into something they could know. To use the term James C. Scott uses in his book Seeing Like a State, they could strive to make society “legible” in order to make it controllable.
Scott came to understand this point when studying “why the state has always seemed to be the enemy of ‘people who move around.’” He discovered that “[n]omads and pastoralists (such as Berbers and Bedouins), hunter-gatherers, Gypsies, vagrants, homeless people, itinerants, runaway slaves, and serfs have always been a thorn in the side of states. Efforts to permanently settle these mobile peoples (sedentarization) seemed to be a perennial state project—perennial, in part, because it so seldom succeeded.” He adds:
The more I examined these efforts at sedentarization, the more I came to see them as a state’s attempt to make a society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion. . . . I began to see legibility as a central problem in statecraft.
The problem facing rulers ran deep: “The premodern state was, in many crucial respects, partially blind; it knew precious little about its subjects, their wealth, their landholdings and yields, their location, their very identity. It lacked anything like a detailed ‘map’ of its terrain and its people. It lacked, for the most part, a measure, a metric, that would allow it to ‘translate’ what it knew into a common standard necessary for a synoptic view.”
Apprehending this problem was like shining a light on phenomena hitherto obscured by shadow. “Suddenly, processes as disparate as the creation of permanent last names, the standardization of weights and measures, the establishment of cadastral surveys and population registers, the invention of freehold tenure, the standardization of language and legal discourse, the design of cities, and the organization of transportation seemed comprehensible as attempts at legibility and simplification.”
He compares such these devices aimed at legibility and simplification, which he calls “high modernism,” to scientific forestry, in which resource management is strictly determined by the need for revenue. His list will raise eyebrows among us classical-liberal devotees of spontaneous social processes. Are we to believe that last names, freehold tenure, and standardization of weights, measures, language, and legal discourse were foisted on societies by rulers for their own convenience?
The story isn’t quite so simple, but it is close. Scott acknowledges that the growth of commerce had a hand in the promotion of some of these devices. But his historical evidence shows that things we have tended to regard as the spontaneous products of liberal progress were in fact contrivances to benefit rulers. This is not to say these institutions are bad in themselves or that none of them would have evolved spontaneously. That seems unlikely. But it is reasonable to think they would have evolved differently in important respects had they not been driven primarily a quest for social control. The contrasting processes—spontaneous order versus what F. A. Hayek called “constructivist rationalism”—would seem to guarantee this. It is unfortunate that those institutions were born in association with tyranny, prompting resistance from average people who felt imposed on by their rulers.
Let’s pause to appreciate the depth of the rulers’ problem. What we learn from Scott is similar to what we learn from Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel laureate who studies the innovative ways that people communally manage common-pool resources without government assistance. Left to their own devices, people jointly find ingenious methods of overcoming obstacles to the efficient management of land and other resources. This category of solutions demonstrates that simple one-person/one-parcel is not the only private alternative to State ownership of resources. Moreover the number of potential solutions is effectively limitless. Thus how a given community will grapple with a given situation is inherently unpredictable. People really are the creative, entrepreneurial beings acting in an open-ended world that Israel Kirzner , inspired by Mises, describes.
That’s what made the rulers’ job so tough as nation-states were formed, driving them to measures intended to simplify the societies they wished to control and, yes, also to establish national markets. Scott writes:
[L]ocal practices of measurement and landholding were “illegible” to the state in their raw form. They exhibited a diversity and intricacy that reflected a great variety of purely local, not state, interests. That is to say, they could not be assimilated into an administrative grid without being either transformed or reduced to a convenient, if partly fictional, shorthand. . . . Backed by state power through records, courts, and ultimately coercion, these state fictions transformed the reality they presumed to observe, although never so thoroughly as to precisely fit the grid. . . . In place of a welter of incommensurable small communities, familiar to their inhabitants but mystifying to outsiders, there would rise a single national society perfectly legible from the center.
The great classical-liberal Benjamin Constant (1767-1830), whom Scott quotes, understood this well:
The conquerors of our days, peoples or princes, want their empire to possess a unified surface over which the superb eye of power can wander without encountering any inequality which hurts or limits its view. The same code of law, the same measures, the same rules, and if we could gradually get there, the same language; that is what is proclaimed as the perfection of the social organization…. The great slogan of the day is uniformity.
Nowhere is the process more clear than in the case of land tenure. Indigenously evolved customary rights over land made taxation based on income and holdings nigh impossible. It was difficult (if possible at all) to know who owned what. Based on his research, Scott hypothesizes a village in which families have a complex of rights and responsibilities regarding cropland, grazing land, trees, and fallen fruit and tree limbs, with customs addressing all manner of situations, including what is to be done during shortages and famines. The customs, however, are not static. They “are better understood as a living, negotiated tissue of practices which are continually being adapted to new ecological and social circumstances—including, of course, power relations.” (Scott has no wish to romanticize such arrangements: “[T]hey are usually riven with inequalities based on gender, status, and lineage.”)
What’s a ruler who wants to impose taxes on his realm to do? While the people within communities understand their customs, outsiders do not.
The mind fairly boggles at the clauses, sub-clauses, and sub-sub-clauses that would be required to reduce these practices to a set of regulations that an administrator might understand, never mind enforce. . . . [E]ven if the practices could be codified, the resulting code would necessarily sacrifice much of their plasticity and subtle adaptability. The circumstances that might provoke a new adaptation are too numerous to foresee, let alone specify, in a regulatory code. That code would in effect freeze a living process.
And what of the next village, and the village after that?
Obviously, the ruling class cannot tolerate this “cacophony of local property regulations.” An alternative needed to be found—and it was. “Indeed,” Scott writes, “the very concept of the modern state presupposes a vastly simplified and uniform property regime that is legible and hence manipulable from the center.”
The answer was “individual freehold tenure.” Scott writes: “Modern freehold tenure is tenure that is mediated through the state and therefore readily decipherable only to those who have sufficient training and a grasp of the state statutes.”
[T]he complex tenure arrangements of customary practice are reduced to freehold, transferrable title. In an agrarian setting, the administrative landscape is blanketed with a uniform grid of homogeneous land, each parcel of which has a legal person as owner and hence taxpayer. How much easier it then becomes to assess such property and its owner on the basis of its acreage, its soil class, the crops it normally bears, and its assumed yield than to untangle the thicket of common property and mixed forms of tenure.
The device for accomplishing this was the cadastral map. “The cadastral map and property register are to the taxation of land as the maps and tables of the scientific forester were to the fiscal exploitation of the forest . . . ,” Scott writes. “Just as the scientific forester needed an inventory of trees to realize the commercial potential of the forest, so the fiscal reformer needed a detailed inventory of landownership to realize the maximum, sustainable revenue yield.”
For the map to be of use, the facts on the ground had to be made to conform to it. In other words, the lives of the inhabitants were to be disrupted to satisfy the ruler’s appetite for revenue.
The mode of production in such communities was simply incompatible with the assumption of individual freehold tenure implicit in a cadastral map. . . . The state’s case against communal forms of land tenure, however, was based on the correct observation that it was fiscally illegible and hence fiscally less productive. . . . [T]he historical resolution has generally been for the state to impose a property system in line with its fiscal grid.
This is not to say all went as planned. Scott points out that people in the communities often continued to use their land as before, ignoring the scheme their rulers attempted to impose. But the rulers were undeterred. They proceeded as though their models reflected what was essential about reality—much as macroeconomists do today. Of course their tax decrees had unintended consequences. For example, the eighteenth-century French tax on doors and windows, which were used as proxies for determining the size of houses, encouraged the construction of homes with few doors and windows.
The people’s ability to work around their rulers, however, was limited. Social life was disrupted, resources were extracted, and communities were prevented from further spontaneous development. How the world would have looked in the absence of ruling classes, one can only speculate.
Sheldon Richman is editor of The Freeman, where this article originally appeared.