Seeing Like a State: problems facing the code rural

by Sebastian Benthall

I’ve been reading James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed for, once again, Classics. It’s just as good as everyone says it is, and in many ways the counterpoint to James Beniger’s The Control Revolution that I’ve been looking for. It’s also highly relevant to work I’m doing on contextual integrity in privacy.

Here’s a passage I read on the subway this morning that talks about the resistance to codification of rural land use customs in Napoleonic France.

In the end, no postrevolutionary rural code attracted a winning coalition, even amid a flurry of Napoleonic codes in nearly all other realms. For our purposes, the history of the stalemate is instructive. The first proposal for a code, which was drafted in 1803 and 1807, would have swept away most traditional rights (such as common pasturage and free passage through others’ property) and essentially recast rural property relations in the light of bourgeois property rights and freedom of contract. Although the proposed code pefigured certain modern French practices, many revolutionaries blocked it because they feared that its hands-off liberalism would allow large landholders to recreate the subordination of feudalism in a new guise.

A reexamination of the issue was then ordered by Napoleon and presided over by Joseph Verneilh Puyrasseau. Concurrently, Depute Lalouette proposed to do precisely what I supposed, in the hypothetical example, was impossible. That is, he undertook to systematically gather information about all local practices, to classify and codify them, and then to sanction them by decree. The decree in question would become the code rural. Two problems undid this charming scheme to present the rural poplace with a rural code that simply reflected its own practices. The first difficulty was in deciding which aspects of the literally “infinite diversity” or rural production relations were to be represented and codified. Even if a particular locality, practices varied greatly from farm to farm over time; any codification would be partly arbitrary and artificially static. To codify local practices was thus a profoundly political act. Local notables would be able to sanction their preferences with the mantle of law, whereas others would lose customary rights that they depended on. The second difficulty was that Lalouette’s plan was a mortal threat to all state centralizers and economic modernizers for whom a legible, national property regime was the procondition of progress. As Serge Aberdam notes, “The Lalouette project would have brought about exactly what Merlin de Douai and the bourgeois, revolutionary jurists always sought ot avoid.” Neither Lalouette nor Verneilh’s proposed code was ever passed, because they, like their predecessor in 1807, seemed to be designed to strengthen the hand of the landowners.

(Emphasis mine.)

The moral of the story is that just as the codification of a land map will be inaccurate and politically contested for its biases, so too a codification of customs and norms will suffer the same fate. As Borges’ fable On Exactitude in Science mocks the ambition of physical science, we might see the French attempts at code rural to be a mockery of the ambition of computational social science.

On the other hand, Napoleonic France did not have the sweet ML we have today. So all bets are off.