“In some ways, the ‘night watchman’ state — the state that enables civil society to develop and function without distortions imposed by roving bandits, local notables, and its own functionaries, but that also is content to simply sit back and watch civil society — is the most powerful and unlikely state of all.” ~ J. Bradford DeLong
DeLong is responding to a fascinating piece by James C. Scott, author of Seeing Like a State, in this month’s Cato Unbound. Scott’s essay focuses on the subversion of local customs, conventions, and names by a central authority. “To follow the progress of state-making is, among other things, to trace the elaboration and application of novel systems which name and classify places, roads, people, and, above all, property,” Scott writes. “These state projects of legibility overlay, and often supersede, local practices. Where local practices persist, they are typically relevant to a narrower and narrower range of interaction within the confines of a face-to-face community.”
As the state grows in scope and size, it must gather and organize knowledge; in order for it to understand, to map, and to effectively govern and collect taxes it must replace the folk vernacular with a standardized one, substituting a colloquial understanding of place with a more efficient, codified system. The illegibility of local places must be swept aside in order to make those places uniform and coherent. Indeed, even the history of proper names reveals the purpose of the state’s inexorable drive to categorize people.
“Western state-making,” writes Scott, “in the seventeenth and eighteenth imposed permanent patronyms as a condition of citizenship.” This was largely to help organize and to make it easier for states to properly perform a census.
Scott does not end his critique with the state, however, noting that “large-scale capitalism is just as much an agency of homogenization, uniformity, grids, and heroic simplification as the state, with the difference that, for capitalists, simplification must pay.” Homogenization and the detrimental effects of a uniform bureaucracy may make local places and people more legible to governments and other large institutions, but they rob us of something deeper, more profound, and more human. Tradition, folk wisdom, and the particular knowledge of place are brushed aside and replaced with lists and grids.
Such standardization occurred early on in the field of medicine. As the medical profession first gained a footing in the 17th century, many of the natural folk remedies known to local places were replaced by the conventions of modern medicine. Birth, once the realm of midwives, became an act performed by doctors. Women who once used birthing stools and squatted when delivering babies were now strapped to a gurney. This made delivery more efficient for the doctor and his forceps, but much less convenient for women. Soon women required powerful drugs to stand the pain. Early on women were given chloroform; now they are given epidurals. Lying on a gurney works against gravity, whereas traditional methods of giving birth were quicker and less painful.
In the West, this folk knowledge was quickly extinguished and is only recently undergoing a revival. However, modern medicine has also brought great advances to human health, and much of its success relies on standardized practice and an elaborate codification of medical terminology.
Similarly, modern urban planning uses grids and strict zoning laws to determine the length of blocks and the proper distance between homes in order to make cities more legible and coherent to city planners. But this often comes at the expense of walkable neighborhoods and creates sprawl. The traditional neighborhood market is replaced by big box stores. Shops and the communities they serve are separated by large swaths of concrete. Unique brick architecture is replaced by soviet-style concrete cubes, and dense walkable areas are replaced by sprawling suburbs filled with standardized homes. The unique is waylaid by the efficient.
Interestingly, this ties in rather well to the previous issue of Cato Unbound, which dealt with the rise of the surveillance state. If anything, the surveillance state is the natural extension of systems which seeks to track and record and name everything. While there is obviously a large practical leap between the census or medical terminology and domestic spying programs and warrantless wire-tapping, it is not hard to see how the one can lay the groundwork for the other. The further centralized and standardized society becomes, the easier it becomes for the state to keep tabs on its citizenry.
Of course, as DeLong points out in his critique of Scott’s thesis, local places can be just as tyrannical, and sometimes the King’s justice is the only justice for people under the sway of a local tyrant. “A state that makes civil society legible to itself cannot protect us from its own fits of ideological terror, or even clumsy thumb-fingeredness,” he writes. “A state to which civil society is illegible cannot help curb roving bandits or local notables. And neither type of state has proved terribly effective at constraining its own functionaries.”
In Catholic social teaching, one important concept is that of subsidiarity. Susidiarity requires that all matters of governance or administration be handled at the lowest level possible. A hierarchy of responsibility is created and a balance of local and central authority is struck. If the old idiom is true that ‘all politics are local’ then subsidiarity may be a good concept by which to reconcile DeLong and Scott’s somewhat conflicting views of the state. Ironically, perhaps, subsidiarity requires some form of hierarchy, and hierarchy demands some form of standardization. But it nevertheless allows for local places to remain in control of local decisions.
Local and federal government must maintain checks and balances on one another in order to maintain liberty. The loss of local and folk knowledge may be inevitable in the modern world, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to keep America weird, or stop trying to revive those folkways we have for whatever reasons cast aside. Striking a realistic balance between tradition and progress, between standardization and diversity, and between the authority of centralized and decentralized power structures may be the best option we have.