Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Significance of Property - Again

Bruce Web is in debate with me HERE: and we both are stuck in conceptual confusion about the meaning of property – is it purely a legal term, distinguished by its codification by jurists and authors, or was it a quite unintended development by unknown people in the very distant past of pre-history, and to which the codifiers and the great judicial minds came much, much later, long after property-rights were practised and enforced by local violence?

The attempt, below, is to set the scene so that we may move on to the relatively short, six-centuries of struggle for Liberty (since medieval times), which manifested itself in such isolated, though significant events – in the consequences they had eventually – as, in England, Magna Carta (and the declaration of Arbroath in Scotland).

This was followed by a long, slow and gradual process from which liberty took its modern forms in the separation of powers, trial by juries, independence of the judiciary (for life and good behaviour), Habeas Corpus, the executive elected by universal suffrage and subject to an independent parliament, with powers of impeachment of the executive, freedom of speech, separation of Church/Mosque/Temple from the State, and rights of assembly. (I outline these aspects in chapter 16 of my “Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy”, 2005, Palgrave Macmillan.)

Property is a human phenonmenon, which in my view pre-dates legal forms and norms which came to be associated with it in recorded history (c.8,000 ya). In the forest, aeons ago, while Homo sapiens were forming through the speciation of the Hominines (from c. six million years ago, right through to the appearance of the first, fully humans c.200,000 years ago), primates were distinguishable from those that shaped and used stone-tools and those that didn’t (broadly speaking). At some time, some humans discovered the use and management of fire, learned to make covering using animal skins and vegetation, and to select and use natural materials for digging, processing, decorating and, on occasion, protecting themselves (and attacking others).

These skills were spread widely among human groups and for most groups these technologies and the knowledge that enabled learning, while relatively sophisticated compared to other species, were the norm (with languages) for all humans for much of prehistory.

Some tribes actually ‘lost’ some of these skills, examples being the tribes of Fuegans of South America, and those Aborigines cut-off in the island of Tasmania with rising seas levels, which tribes reverted to even more primitive living than their ancestors in the rest of South America and Australia, both of which were described by Europeans who visited them in the 18th–19th century, as the “brutes”.

The important thing is that while racists took the 'brutes' as representative of all tribe cultures, they were in fact the exceptions. But they had no notions of property as a possession and appear to have ‘lost’ the basic knowledge of subsistence-craft too; the majority of the world’s tribes practised early notions of property, albeit of a very primitive quality.

Property, through most of its pre-history, and the first millennia of recorded history, had no connection with its legal forms which came much, much later. Quoting legal ideas – early Roman, Norman, English or French law and such like - is not appropriate.

Our focus should be, for these discussions, on the role that property ‘mine’, ‘ours’, ‘their’s, and ‘yours’ – played in practice, long, long before literate societies recorded even crude details of its manifestations.

We should also not get hung up on later ideas about the lineage of property in its proto-modern forms. Nobody knows which tribes first ‘discovered’, ‘invented’, or ‘conceptualised’ forms of property. We can trace only the slimmest of evidence of the evolution of property (‘meum and tuum’; mine and thine), mainly by archaeological stone remains and clues from folk myths (which may be wildly inaccurate). It is almost certain that no one tribe of humans (or race groups, black, white, yellow, brown) can make a claim to be the originator. Stone tools were common in East Africa from long ago.

We do know that somewhere, sometime, and by somebody, property appeared from human action, not by design, somebody’s genius, or a ‘great leader’. It is the distinguishing characteristic of humanity; in its physical forms, it separates us from all other primates, past and present. It may have been a mixed blessing.

Property enabled the alpha males and females of a tribe to claim and exploit its territory and the people within it (the latter, a long established behaviour set among other primates); similarly within families, with allies, and individuals as the benefits of property (as a resource also to ensure obedience) became manifest.

Access to subsistence was related to the evolution of property (better tools, easily carried, replaced quickly; larger domains, natural obstacles to movement overcome; baskets for carrying food, and babies; heavier clubs and longer wooden poles to deal with predators; and so on).

With better and regular subsistence, life-spans increased, and populations increased too. Of course, all this was net of local losses from bloody conflict. Successful tribes grew larger, more mobile, more dangerous to distant neighbours – and their womenfolk – and the long journey to property in the forms of herding and farming began, not in a straight line, and not always in one direction.

John Locke summed it up in the phrase: “In the beginning, all the world was America”, using North America’s native tribes as the standard mode of subsistence of pre-Mediterranean, Egypt, Babylon, India, China, and Europe (and for non-Roman parts of 17th-century Europe, including the Highlands of Scotland).

Property distinguished the property-less ‘brutes’ from the property-abundant humans, especially after the division of labour and the “propensity to truck, barter, and trade” became established.

The correlation between property and rising total subsistence is manifest. Note, a rising total GDP did not mean, necessarily, a rising per capita GDP for long periods; per capita GDP remained static mostly, including from the 5th to the 15th century following the fall of Rome (except in plague years).

Our ancestor’s rulers diverted considerable subsistence into ‘civilised’ artefacts in stone buildings, walls and roads, and all the trappings of military might, which sometimes, along with plagues and famines, destroyed the very basis of their ‘civilisation’. All that dreary experience of history changed with the sustained rise in per capita incomes and, of course, total GDP from about 1800 onwards.

Should we continue our discussions, the above, very roughly, is where I am coming from conceptually.

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