Reviewing James C Scott Paul Seabright writes:
In the Languedoc there is a vineyard that teaches us an important lesson about textbook learning and its application to the world. In the early Seventies it was bought by a wealthy couple, who consulted professors Emile Peynaud and Henri Enjalbert, the world’s leading academic oenologist and oenological geologist respectively. Between them these men convinced the couple that their new vineyard had a theoretically ideal microclimate for wine-making. When planted with theoretically ideal vines whose fruits would be processed in the optimal way according to the up-to-date science of oenology, this vineyard had the potential to produce wine to match the great first growths of Bordeaux. The received wisdom that great wine was the product of an inscrutable (and untransferable) tradition was quite mistaken, the professors said: it could be done with hard work and a fanatical attention to detail. The couple, who had no experience of wine-making but much faith in professorial expertise, took a deep breath and went ahead.
If life were reliably like novels, their experiment would have been a disaster. In fact Aimé and Véronique Guibert have met with a success so unsullied that it would make a stupefying novel (it has already been the subject of a comatogenic work of non-fiction). The first vintage they declared (in 1978) was described by Gault Millau as ‘Château Lafite du Languedoc’; others have been praised to the heights by the likes of Hugh Johnson and Robert Parker. The wine is now on the list at the Tour d’Argent and the 1986 vintage retails at the vineyard for £65 a bottle. The sole shadow on the lives of these millionaires is cast by the odd hailstorm.
The first quarter of the review is available for free on the LRB website. You’ll have to pay or be a subscriber to read the rest – it’s well worth it though.
I’ve always thought the intellectual convergence around a distaste for planning that exists between Libertarians (Easterly, Hayek), Conservatives (Burke, Oakeshott) and parts of the po-mo(?) left was intriguing. In part it’s a product of ideology and a dislike of the state, or progress, or both. But in part it’s cohesion around an important truth: collective action is difficult, the world is complex, and information’s very hard to aggregate. From this comes an important insight: some things really can’t be achieved through planning, or through centrally coordinated collective endeavour.
And yet, each of these thinkers – in their own specific way – extends this insight far beyond it’s useful range. Because it turns out that states and planners can do quite a lot, despite the complexity. There are many things planners should never attempt. But there are also other activities out there that can be planned quite well. And there are other activities still which usually end up poorly planned but occur in areas where poorly-planned produces better outcomes than market forces or doing nothing. If you live in a city in a developed country you’ll get to observe all of these on your daily commute.
The basic insight of the anti-planners is an important one: don’t over reach. But, to my thinking at least, the most interesting and important questions in development have a lot to do with planned collective action – when it works, why it works, and how it can work better.