Scott’s theory can actually help to understand some facts about economic development. In their paper Geography and Economic Development, John Gallup, Jeffrey Sachs, and Andrew Mellinger elaborate several versions of what we called the geography hypothesis in Why Nations Fail. They point out that there is a correlation between the distribution of population in a country and poverty, with countries in Asia and Africa often having populations far from the coast and navigable rivers — a fact which they interpret as a geographical source of underdevelopment.
But they do not explain why African countries have populations that are far from the coast. Why could this be?
Scott’s book suggests that this could well have nothing much to do with geography (well to the extent you can’t grow rice in Africa…) and everything to do with the historical processes of state formation. He notes
“A final state-thwarting strategy is distance from state centers or, in our terms, friction-of-terrain-remoteness” (p. 279)
and argues that a “distance-making-strategy” was an important part of stopping being incorporated into the state.
There are other ideas that could help explain such a distribution of population. One is the slave trade. The historian John Thornton, in his seminal history of the Kingdom of the Kongo in West Central Africa (The Kingdom of Kongo: Civil War and Transition, 1641-1718), pointed out that when the Kingdom started to get seriously into slave raiding, people started to move away from roads and anywhere which might give access to slave traders. Rivers would be an obvious such source of access.
A related idea was investigated in detail by Nathan Nunn and Diego Puga in their paper Ruggedness: The Blessing of Bad Geography in Africa. They argued that in the period of the slave trade in Africa places which were rugged and hilly were very attractive to hide from slave traders. In their empirical work they showed that ruggedness actually reduced the negative impact of slavery on the economic development of African countries.
So the fact that in Africa or Asia population may be distributed in “paradoxical ways” seems to have little to do with geography (a puzzling interpretation in the first place) and everything to do with politics and the historical evolution of institutions, including states, in different parts of the world. Another instance of geographic determinism getting the picture all wrong…