Seeing Like a State Reviews

Slatestarcodex and now Samzdat have made James Scott’s Seeing Like a State popular now, and obviously this blog is going to find a lot of agreement with it’s concept of metis, over rationally organized systems.

In the [cool kids scene] of the 2000’s, opposition to Christianity was a given. No subject was more likely to unite than a good old bashing of fundamentalists. Marxists, Anarchists, Libertarians, Liberals, Randians – it crossed political borders. (I’m from California, if that helps.)

It was hard not to – it’s not like the fundies had any coherent reasons they could articulate. Every other day some [class indicator] pastor would announce opposition to “the gay agenda” or seek to return to “a Christian nation” as though that were a desirable thing that had ever existed (like, deism duh, etc.). If that wasn’t bad enough, when pressed for an explanation, they’d just read some passage from John or Corinthians. “And? Was that all?” Readers take note: if someone is busy mocking you for your holy book, justifying your actions based on your holy book is a terrible rhetorical strategy.

Standard interpretation: “The olds are lamenting the loss of an oppressive institution that has no objective value, right?” Right?

So this is what churches do in our language: they’re probably the single most important economic institution in rural America. Period.

Here are some obvious economic effects: Nearly every church functions as a community safety net, where tithes collected are distributed to poor members or members experiencing sudden economic shock (disemployment, medical issues, etc.). Depending on the church, this is actually a lot more immediate and a lot larger than government distributions that approximate the same thing. They also function as labor banks, wherein members help one another with projects that they could otherwise not afford (think of home improvement projects coordinated through the church, wherein one can afford to repaint their house or call on the labor expertise of a fellow congregation members [say a plumber] to perform a simple  but otherwise costly repair). Hell, one of the biggest things they do is something almost no one seems to think about: most churches provide free after school programs for poor congregation members, which is a humongous cost for parents. “Big deal.” Yeah, but the cost of childcare is actually fucking enormous.

Note that most of those are vastly more important for the old and the retired (“it’s just the olds complaining!”), both in terms of cost (local members helping for free) and autonomy (one is less likely to have to enter the anonymity of a retirement home, etc. if community members are there to help).

Churches have many more nebulous effects that are even larger: they improve social trust, which has a stupidly powerful economic effect. They provide local networking effects, allowing members to find new jobs and move up using church connections. Many studies relate churches to decreased violence and drug problem in communities (although I suspect this is confounded by social trust and the kinds of people who tend toward religiosity).

So count that in “95% agree with, but 5% have some problems with that I may get around to writing up more fully.”


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