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The strength of Barnett’s book lies in the brilliant way he dissects prevailing constitutional theory and offers a principled alternative. It was just such integrity of intellect that enabled him to play a lead role in the constitutional challenge to ObamaCare.
Both Takings and Restoring the Lost Constitution present a constitutional philosophy in which individual rights are protected from arbitrary and excessive government. Both books are based on impeccable scholarship and thought-provoking advocacy. And both were written by individuals whose successful academic careers show that acting with the courage of your convictions can inspire people inside as well as outside the ivory tower.
Jesse Walker on James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State
The map, as the saying goes, is not the territory: The symbols we use to describe the world are not the same as the world itself. James C. Scott’s 1998 book Seeing Like a State examines that gap between maps and territories through a political lens, exploring the conflicts between officials who want clear maps of the areas they rule and subjects who do not always want to be charted.
One insight of the book is the sheer amount of local knowledge that maps do not and often cannot capture. Another is how that missing information drives powerful people not just to try to make better maps, but to remake the territory itself—the real places where real people live—in order to make it more mappable.
The result is a wide-ranging, interdisciplinary, and brilliant book. It covers everything from Stalin’s war on the Russian peasantry to the destruction wrought by urban renewal programs, from the rise of permanent surnames to the enclosures that expropriated the commons, from the evolution of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., to the transformation of forestry in 18th-century Germany.
Scott’s themes include several subjects familiar to libertarians, such as the failures of central planning and the value of inarticulate knowledge, but he tackles them with a fresh eye, a wealth of research, and a talent for introducing useful concepts. High modernism, for example, is “a particularly sweeping vision of how the benefits of technical and scientific progress might be applied—usually through the state—in every field of human activity.” Metis is practical, vernacular knowledge, which Scott contrasts with the abstract knowledge of the high modernists and their maps. Non-state spaces are the poorly mapped zones where mutuality and metis flourish.
Impressive as Seeing Like a State is, it is only one part of a sequence of studies in which Scott offers a bracing alternative to conventional political assumptions. Two earlier books, Weapons of the Weak (1985) and Domination and the Arts of Resistance (1990), investigate the ways apparently powerless people quietly resist their rulers. And 2009’s remarkable The Art of Not Being Governed describes the history of a particularly long-lived non-state space—the vast Asian territory sometimes known as Zomia—and its relationship with the governments and quasi-governments it has bordered.
All of these books are well worth reading. Scott does not consider himself a libertarian, a point he occasionally pauses to stress, but the concepts he has introduced or developed belong in every libertarian’s toolkit.
The past 45 years have seen remarkable advances in information technology: the Internet, mobile communications, ubiquitous news and entertainment options, and much more. What made these and other innovations possible was a general openness to the unplanned, the unpredictable, and even the uncontrollable. In our willingness to embrace a world of uncertainty and incessant change, we found unparalleled technological abundance.
No two books more eloquently captured and celebrated the information age than Ithiel de Sola Pool’s Technologies of Freedom (1983) and Virginia Postrel’s The Future and Its Enemies (1998).
Penned long before most of us had heard of “the Internet” or “cyberspace,” Pool’s prescient text predicted a world in which “networked computers will be the printing presses of the twenty-first century” and where “there will be networks on networks on networks.” In the future, he forecasted, “A panoply of electronic devices puts at everyone’s hands capacities far beyond anything that the printing press could offer.”
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