“No one to whom I have begun recounting the story believes it will end well”

It begins with a story of a vineyard:

In the early Seventies it was bought by a wealthy couple, who consulted professors Emile Peynaud and Henri Enjalbert, the world’s leading academic oenologist and oenological geologist respectively. Between them these men convinced the couple that their new vineyard had a theoretically ideal microclimate for wine-making. When planted with theoretically ideal vines whose fruits would be processed in the optimal way according to the up-to-date science of oenology, this vineyard had the potential to produce wine to match the great first growths of Bordeaux. The received wisdom that great wine was the product of an inscrutable (and untransferable) tradition was quite mistaken, the professors said: it could be done with hard work and a fanatical attention to detail. The couple, who had no experience of wine-making but much faith in professorial expertise, took a deep breath and went ahead.

If life were reliably like novels, their experiment would have been a disaster. In fact Aimé and Véronique Guibert have met with a success so unsullied that it would make a stupefying novel (it has already been the subject of a comatogenic work of non-fiction).

No one to whom I have begun recounting the story believes it will end well. Most people are extremely unwilling to grant that faith in textbook knowledge should ever be crowned with success. We have a very strong narrative bias against such stories.

That is Paul Seabright on James Scott, writing in 1999 (I have only just seen this now, courtesy of Suresh Naidu).

Where Scott is the grand skeptic of planning and scientific management, Seabright reminds us there are successes for every failure. A nice counterpoint to my recommendation that we all ought to see more like an anarchist.

Still, most policymakers do not need to be reminded that their grand plans can work. They need the kick in the butt from Scott more.

If you haven’t read Seabright’s book on the biological and evolutionary underpinnings of economic and social behavior, you must. One of my favorites.


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