Monday, October 19, 2009

From the Invention of Property (collective and individual) All Else Followed

Readers will recall that I had an exchange with Bruce on Bruce Web last week (HERE): Here

This is my initial response to where we diverge - the historial significance of the invention of property - if we cannot agree on that issue, I do not see how we might agree on the rest,

Hi Bruce

We appear to be marching in diverging directions, possibly reflecting a difference in our understanding of the pre-history, and more recent history, of humanity. I take the long view; you appear to hold to a shorter horizon; I try to be disengaged, preferring to understand rather than take sides; you are influenced by E. P. Thompson’s history of the English working class, a much more immediate scholarship of a narrower slice of human history, from a particular perspective.

We do not see eye-to-eye on the most important role of the evolution of human property. Apart from the period when the entire human species, dispersed across the landmass and ignorant of each other more than a few hundred miles away in any direction, subsisted from the limited bounties of nature, the late pre-history and history of the human race began, in effect, with the discovery of the novel role of new forms of subsistence encompassed in Herding (possibly 20,000 years ago after the Ice-age, and Farming, sometime around 11,000 years ago in the plains of Eurasia and the ‘fertile crescent, centred on the Middle-East.

Most human groups outside these areas remained based on the hunter-gatherer economies, where the sole form of property was group, later tribal, territory (‘our territory, not theirs’), a notion ‘known’ (because practiced) to primate cousins and to predator animals. The subsistence economies known to Hominids (Homines) or proto-humans species, also evolved stone-technologies (the stone ages) and laid claim to territories by virtue of their ‘occupation’, and abandoned or lost them in the face of violent challenges from other groups.

This subsistence culture was stable overall and almost unchanging – some stone-tool cultures didn’t change their technologies for over a million years - even as Hominid species became extinct. With the greater intelligence of Homo sapiens, from 200,000 years ago, primitive technologies evolved in some areas of the earth, though not in others, as early explorers found from the 16th-18th centuries. Tiny groups survived as hunter-gatherers, with relatively sophisticated cultures, into the 20th-century.
We can debate why some human groups developed notions of property and others didn’t; it had nothing to do with called ‘superiority’ and a lot to do with circumstances. Among the latter was the discovery of “herding” and “domestication” of animals, and later of plant foods, at the end of the last-ice age. We can trace the effects on the human populations. Briefly, population levels reflect the subsistence base (as throughout nature in all species). For populations to grow, gross annual output of subsistence has to rise, and as it rises, new or more intensive subsistence exploitation has to grow as well. Additionally, institutional development promoted by the subsistence technologies has to succeed in transmitting to following generations the necessary disciplines.

It is my contention, following Adam Smith (and others), that one institutional innovation was what we call property, collective and personal. No human groups, so far known, achieved the necessary subsistence growth without the innovation of property. Taking the ‘bigger picture’ across the earth, those groups that relied solely on the forest, rivers and sea shores were bound by the limits imposed by the free bounties of nature. Those groups that discovered appropriate technologies, including property (in herds of animals and specialized in farming), grew in overall sustainable population levels and the necessary higher output of annual subsistence.

Collective property has always existed alongside notions of private property. The former is vaguer and universal; the latter is specific and local. Humans have always lived in social groupings (like our primate cousins), not least for protection from predators and from rival groups. Success in subsistence growth both strengthens group bonds and attracts the attention of rival groups. Issues of inheritance, peace and war, inter-group bonding (women) and alliances, begin to form and eventually take their shape in relationships within and without the group.
Herds wander; they also attract outsiders. Crops are vulnerable to wandering animals and to intrusive herds. Fences, natural and man-made, give form to the institution of property. The fable of Cain and Able in Genesis illustrates the potential of property rights to lead to violence. Tribal and family wanderings across vast stretches of territory is incompatible with farming seasons, which promote settlements close to farmed land.

Jared Diamond writes eloquently about this being humanity’s greatest ‘mistake’, but what was once done cannot be undone (to return to the subsistence of population levels comparable with 11,000 years ago means the elimination of c.6 billion people). The hunter-gatherer cannot last without regular subsistence, the level of which is limited by the available bounty of nature; and neither can the farmer, but if farmers can solve the problem of inter-seasonal gaps in subsistence (storage, foraging, very large herds, and the domestication of the horse), and their new forms of subsistence can produce annually sufficient for per capita consumption, the basis is laid for a survival strategy.

Two things are clear. First, the subsistence problem was ‘solved’ eventually – growing populations at steady, low, levels of per capital consumption – and, Second, the inevitable consequence of growing inequality from growing total subsistence levels, was a siphoning off of a proportion of the annual output for the disposal of whichever sub-group took control of the group, and claimed and held control of its property.

Throughout history right up to the end of the 18th century in parts of Europe, per capita consumption was steady, but total output was slowly rising. From the decades around 1800 onwards, per capita income began and continued to grow without precedent, as did total GDP. Whereas earlier elites diverted much of the economy’s growing surplus into stone-built early examples of ‘civilizations’, the detritus of which can be found in Mediterranean countries, Egypt, Babylon, all across Europe, India and China, parts of Central America and South-east Asia, to show the scale of what became available, net of the huge amounts lost in wars, and reached levels hitherto unknown to humanity. And population numbers grew accordingly.

None of this would have happened without the invention of property. Nothing is implied here about whether people were ‘happier’, better off, ‘properly or fairly treated’, by those who ruled over them. Adam Smith (and many others) took the view that human nature is unchanging. Material change does not necessarily make for more worthy people. The task of the philosopher is to observe, not to take sides; is to learn from history, not to export current ideas to previous generations; and to make modest suggestions (they are the only ones likely to be adopted) for improvements that accord with how humans behave.

The “Man of system,” warned Smith, “is apt to be very wise in his own conceit”, and seems to imagine “that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand can arrange the different pieces upon a chess board”, but “every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislator might chuse to impress upon it” (Moral Sentiments VI.ii.2.17: 233-34).

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Blogger Bruce Webb said...

Well to address this in full would require an extended post, and even though my wrist feels better perhaps today is not the time.

But a few points. One your "disengagement" is not as clear to me as it is to you, in particular you have valorized property in a way that has colored your whole argument. A more minor point is on the role of fencing. For example there may have been no culture more solicitous of property rights as American ranchers of the nineteenth century, both cattle rustling and horse thievery were capital offense performed on the spot was the miscreant was captured. But this separation rarely came in the form of fencing, instead the cattle and to some degree the horse were allowed to travel across the open range. Nor were fences particularly characteristic of English low-land farming, there was no firm separation between one mans holding and another, at best an earthern balk, nor were common grazing areas fenced off. Which doesn't mean that each man did not have a specific property right to his crops and animals.

And the idea that tribal and familial wanderings are incompatible with settled agriculutre ignores the fact that nomads generally didn't 'wander', instead they traversed generally settled migratory tracts (in which they had their own form of ownership (in modern form it would be considered a 'time share') which in turn had settled anchors at each end. In some nomadic societies it was typical to plant crops prior to the departure for the highland grazing in the spring only to return to harvest them in the fall when the upland pastures were more or less exploited for the year and weather was settling in. The whole nomadic lifestyle was just more structured than romance would have it.

I'll have to think about this more but the notion that private property fosters higher levels of substance production would seem at first glance contradicted by the fact that the first real civilizations grew up in river valley's themselves marked by high levels of slavery and direct exploitation of production by the upper classes.

And it is an interesting question even as to Europe whether in a feudalized system that even the wealthiest people had a fundamental ownership interest in their property given that it was not freely alienable and the rights to wardships for minor children would often fall to the Lord from whom the lower Lord was holding it.

But more interesting to me is the parallel discussion we were having on the relatation between 'liberty' which for you seems to be grounded deeply on 'property' and 'equality' which inherently leads in democratic directions.

I will say that the concept of the "Free Englishman" survived the Norman Conquest and all the centuries of economic suppression of common property rights that followed. Leaving me to doubt the universality of "From the Invention of Property All Else Followed". I am not sure that either our Celtic or Germanic ancestors would have fully acquiesed in that at all.

7:39 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Thanks Bruce

Please wait until your wrist is fine again. Our discussions/ debate can await a while.

Breifly, we are not tsalking about the same time periods. English, Germanic, European settlers in North America are well down the historical tract from the early herders (followers of herds of edible meat) and early farmers of 11,000 years ago, whose archeological remains uncovered tin 19th-20th centuries (before writtem history) and, crucially before there were coded laws.

But, enough! Wait until you are fit again.

Best regards


9:01 pm  
Blogger Bruce Webb said...

Well I am good to go and have a new post up at AB.

5:36 pm  

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