The Will to Make Legible
Friday, July 25, 2014
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

The University of the Andes in Bogotá where James Robinson teaches every summer wants to expand at the moment. In particular just to the north of the campus in downtown Bogotá, about 10 minutes walk for the Casa de Nariño, the presidential palace, is a neighborhood called Triángulo de Fenicia.

The deal that the university proposed is that they would buy up all the properties and then re-house the people living there in new apartment buildings they would construct as part of the campus extension (you can read about the project here.) Looks like a great deal; nearly all of the houses in the Triángulo are poorly constructed.

But then a problem arose. Nobody in the Triángulo actually has a title to their property. The area is an “invasion” — the term commonly used in Colombia for illegal land occupation. This invasion did not happen recentl, but decades ago, but the government, just close by, never managed to get around to sorting titles or property rights out. The Triángulo is not very legible.

Now something else states are supposed to do is to make citizens legible with regular censuses. What could be more basic? The United States has had a census every 10 years since 1790. Britain has had one every 10 years since 1801. Colombia does not have a census in the usual sense of the word because it does not attempt to collect information on all its citizens with a census instrument administered to every household. It does have a substitute for it, which it calls a census and collects every now and then, for example in 1918 after which it took a 20-year break to 1938 (OK there was a census in 1928 but the data were never released…). Then it took a 13-year break and did a “census” in 1951, followed by 1964, then an 11-year break to 1973, a 12-year break to 1985, then an 8-year break to 1993 after which it went back to 12 years (2005 census). If you can spot the pattern, we can’t.

As a final example of the lack of legibility of Colombia, let’s return to our post on Why Nations Fail hitting Quibdó, the capital of the Colombian department of El Chocó on the Pacific Littoral. Scott in the Art of Not Being Governed is careful to point out

“since 1945, and in some cases before then, the power of the state to deploy distance-demolishing technologies – railroads, all-weather roads, telephone, telegraph, airpower, helicopters, and now information technology – so changed the strategic balance of power between self-governing peoples and nation states, so diminished the friction of terrain, that my analysis largely ceases to be useful” (p. xii).

But in 2014 there is no all-weather road between Quibdó and the rest of Colombia. Sort of like not having a road between Burlington Vermont and Boston.

These examples and many many like them illustrate a big problem in Scott’s analysis. He simply takes it for granted the states have the “will to make legible,” making them inexorably expand and crush everything in their path unless the friction of terrain allows some plucky groups to stay independent and hold back the flood of state power.

But as we have pointed out in Why Nations Fail, state centralization — and the will of the state to expand — can sometimes be halted because of the specific political equilibrium society (and the elites) are in.

The Colombian case illustrates this. The Colombian state has scarcely been propelled by the will to expand to all areas. Using Scott’s terminology, the Colombian state does not think like this. It has never been interested in controlling the Chocó or making it legible. The same thing goes for many other parts of the country.

If you want some suggestive evidence on this it came from the conference that James Robinson attended in Quibdó in 2013. At the conference two economists from the Colombian Ministry of Planning gave talks about why El Chocó was the poorest department in Colombia. Unfortunately, their presentations showed that they had absolutely no knowledge of the history of the poverty of the Chocó. Indeed, they erroneously blamed the poverty of the Chocó on a particular law, Law 70 on 1993 which as we will discuss in future blogs, rather than creating poverty in El Chocó was in fact a brilliant piece of political entrepreneurship by its citizens to force the state to provide them with some basic services which they had long been denied.

The problems with their analysis of El Chocó are detailed in this presentation here.

For those who want to watch the videos of the debate at the conference they can see them with English subtitles: First the two gentlemen from the ministry of planning, and then the reaction from the people in the floor of the conference, vigorously contradicting their interpretation of the situation.

It is a bit unfair to single out these two gentlemen, both well trained and serious and trying to engage in a genuine discussion of the development problems of Colombia’s poorest department. The point is not about them but about the state they work for. El Chocó is not at all legible, but this is not because it is mountainous (it is actually quite flat with large mangrove swamps), or because its people have fled into a territory to take advantage of the friction of terrain. The current population of El Chocó to a large extent descends from its historic population, both indigenous or Afro-Colombian. Rather than people fleeing to El Chocó, the more typical situation is out migration. The reason El Chocó is illegible to the Colombian state is because it has never had the slightest interest in making it legible.

But why, isn’t this paradoxical? In fact no, and this leads to the real problem with the analysis of Seeing Like a State and the Art of Not Being Governed. Neither book discusses the politics of state formation, yet this politics is critical to understand why El Chocó is not legible to the Colombian state and more generally is essential to understand if one wants to develop a theory of the incidence of state capacity and capacities. The will to legibility cannot be taken as given and that is where the politics comes in.

We picked on Colombia in this post, but we could have picked on many other countries where the will to make legible is completely absent — and we are doing research in quite a few of them including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Pakistan and Sierra Leone.

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (
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