If there were one thing I could impress upon people about the nature of the state, it’s that governments by their very nature want to make their citizens “legible.”
I borrow that word from James C. Scott, whose book Seeing Like a State left a lasting impression on me. Scott studied why the state has always seen “people who move around” to be the enemy. Around the world, according to Scott, states have historically seen nomadic peoples, herdsmen, slash-and-burn hill people, Gypsies, hunter-gatherers, vagrants, and runaway slaves and serfs as problems to be solved. States have tried to make these people stay in one place.
But as Scott examined “sedentarization” (making mobile people settle down), he realized this practice was simply part of a more fundamental drive of the state: to make the whole population legible to the state. The premodern state was “blind” to its subjects. But the modern state was determined first to see them, and then organize them. This is why so many rulers pushed for the universal usage of last names starting around 1600 (aristocrats had been using family or clan names for centuries already). The same goes with the push for more accurate addresses, the standardization of weights and measures, and of course the use of censuses and surveys. It’s much easier to collect taxes, conscript soldiers, fight crime, and put down rebellions if you know who people are and where they live.
Friday, April 27, 2012
Jonah Goldberg has a very sensible post on the Arizona immigration controversy: