Waylaid Dialectic

March 4, 2011

Yet another example of planners FAILING!!!

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.


  1. To take a pre-mo left perspective and apply a bit of old fashioned class analysis, I’d reckon planning is pretty successful if very well funded and supported, and you are dealing with hard science, rather than human society, as shown by the completely irrelevant example of wealthy vineyard owners able to source the knowledge of scientific experts. However, in the real world, planning tends to be a weapon of the powerful (often the state) against the powerless.

    “The sole shadow on the lives of these millionaires is cast by the odd hailstorm”

    I guess the fact that they are spending their useless lives producing wine at 65 quid a bottle for the enjoyment of other useless dickheads doesn’t cast the slightest smidgeon of a shadow over them. Life in a champagne (‘scuse the inaccurate and possibly unlawful use of a Geographical Indicator) bubble.

    Comment by Sam Buchanan — April 5, 2011 @ 11:55 am

  2. Hi there Sam,

    Thanks for your comment and nice to run into you back in Wellington.

    I agree that planning is much harder when dealing with the shaping of human actions and human society. And I also agree that large scale collective endeavour is forever prone to capture by those with power. The thing is both planning and large scale collective action are essential aspects of modern life. So it’s very hard to see what the alternative is, other than to establish checks and balances, and foster countervailing forces to oppose predominant power structures. These are very imperfect solutions, granted, but what else is there?

    Comment by terence — April 5, 2011 @ 12:32 pm

  3. “The thing is both planning and large scale collective action are essential aspects of modern life.”

    And not-so modern life, the issue is not whether to have planning and collective action, but who controls them.

    But my grumble is that Seabright’s review is the biggest load of rubbish I’ve read in a long while. It’s a bit hard to work out from the review what Scott actually says (I haven’t read the book – I’m still trying to get through another Scott book, which is fascinating and oddly unreadable), but the reviewer sums it up as “His second, more ambitious story is that all systematic plans for human improvement based on simplification and generalisation are bound to fail.”

    Seabright then proceeds to construct more strawmen than an East European harvest festival, some of which are bloody offensive smears, some of which seem to be just about telling us what a learned chap Seabright is. Loadsa big words. Others are just confusing and irrelevant.

    If Scott is opposing ‘systematic plans for human improvement based on simplification and generalisation’ as Seabright claims, why not debate that point, instead of attacking him for opposing planning, favouring planning, being a conservative, opposing learning from others and keeping company with those who support female circumcision?

    Comment by Sam Buchanan — April 5, 2011 @ 2:37 pm

  4. …oh yeah, and why go on about a small French vineyard run by a couple of wealthy people who have harnessed the world’s top scientists? I reiterate – is the argument in favour of planning just saying that since we have one example where people with a huge amount of resources applied them to a single small scale agriculture project, and it worked, therefore anti-planning arguments must be wrong?

    Comment by Sam Buchanan — April 5, 2011 @ 2:47 pm

  5. Ok – so I guess we differ on the merits of the review (i.e. the big words and all that). With regards to the substantive argument I think it’s worth separating into two different threads.

    One is to do with the potential, and perils, of collective action. From anarchist collectives, to trade unions, to governments, to the UN, Collective Actions’s an essential part of human life. Without structured cooperation our standards of living would be much much lower as would our ability to enact change. At the same time, collective action within groups (countries, planets…) does, as you point out, inevitably end up shaped by power relations. Powerful actors within groups can dominate the weak. So, while acting collectively is essential to our well being, it also brings with us the risk of the less powerful being harmed by those with more powerful. I think we agree about these risks. We probably disagree about how they are best managed and what the ramifications of the risks are.

    The second argument is to do with knowledge and planning. I’m no expert on Scott’s thought (hey, this is a blog, after all) but from the little I’ve read, the essence of his ‘seeing like a state’ argument is that large scale plans, and large scale human endeavour is destined (or at least prone) to failure for reasons not solely associated with power but rather with the production and privileging of particular types of knowledge. Specifically, the privileging of orderly, universal and somewhat simplified information over locally produced and locally used knowledge. This privileged information is, to Scott, inadequate when set against the complexity of human society (or nature). And this is why some (or maybe all?) grand schemes to improve the human lot have backfired. On a large scale – even disregarding issues of power – humans just aren’t that good at planning.

    This argument isn’t too different from those of Oakeshott and Hayek and it’s more or less correct. Except that quite a lot large scale planning has significantly improved human welfare. Despite the issue of information that Scott emphasises.

    Scott, as I understand it, also argues that naming and the systematic production of knowledge is a necessary element of empowering the centralised state vis a vis the communities it rules over. I’m not so sure what to make of this. I think power is an issue of its own accord and not that intrinsically linked to knowledge (i.e. I always thought tanks did a better job than names when it comes to hegemony). But even if he’s correct here (and I guess this is where you and I really disagree) I think the net impact of states on human welfare has been positive. A lot of bad has been done, but states are also capable of good. And set against the most likely counter factual (which I don’t think is spontaneous egalitarian collectivism). I think the good of the state, while not good enough still outweighs the harm it does.

    So, people using arguments akin to those of Oakeshott, Hayek and Scott as cautions against being too ambitious in planning, and against grand plans, are right, I think. But people extending these arguments against all planning, or modern society, or social democracy, or aid, or the state, or whatever, are extending the arguments far beyond their useful and accurate range.

    At least, that’s how I see it – but, like I said, I’m no expert on Scott.

    Comment by terence — April 6, 2011 @ 9:48 am

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