Friday, May 23, 2008

The Necessary Role of Property in History

‘Bill’, self-described as a ‘non-violent’, ‘liberation socialist’ writes in his Blog, HighBoldtage (‘politics and music in Humboldt County’), without comment (HERE):

“Adam Smith”

“As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produce.”
-Adam Smith

Bill tags his post in his own index as: ‘economy, fascism, land, poverty, private property, privatization, rent’, which raises the minor question of why only one 20th century political regime is linked to Adam Smith (or vice versa), and why not any of the others too? More commonly, he is linked by socialists to socialism or social democracy, both only slightly less absurd than his alleged link to Mussolini’s Black Shirts.

Smith held no public views on party politics and there is a modern controversy (historians of economic thought are a querelous lot) of distant vintage about his personal politcs – was he a Whig or a Tory? Eminent scholars disagree, largely by admitting to not being able to discern in Adam Smith a consitent set of ideas that conveniently fit into any neat modern concept of a political philosophy. For the best account of his views see: Donald Winch, Adam Smith’s Politics: An Essay in Historio-graphic Revision, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

However, readers should be grateful that ‘Bill’ has extracted this particular quotation from Wealth Of Nations because it provides an opportunity to discuss the very points that Adam Smith was making. Here is the quotation in full:

As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produce. The wood of the forest, the grass of the field, and all the natural fruits of the earth, which, when land was in common, cost the labourer only the trouble of gathering them, come, even to him, to have an additional price fixed upon them. He must then pay for the licence to gather them; and must give up to the landlord a portion of what his labour either collects or produces. This portion, or, what comes to the same thing, the price of this portion, constitutes the rent of land, and in the price of the greater part of commodities makes a third component part.

The real value of all the different component parts of price, it must be observed, is measured by the quantity of labour which they can, each of them, purchase or command. Labour measures the value not only of that part of price which resolves itself into labour, but of that which resolves itself into rent, and of that which resolves itself into profit.”
[WN p 67]

This paragraph contains an historical account of a significant change in human circumstances, which ‘Bill’ has skipped over: the emergence of property, not by a political revolution, nor ordained, inevitable, or widespread geographically. Before this event, small populations of humans everywhere lived as hunter-gatherers and the majority of them continued to do so, and some remnant populations survive on the margins still.

For hunter-gatherers, the “wood of the forest, the grass of the field, and all the natural fruits of the earth, which, when land was in common, cost the labourer only the trouble of gathering them”.

The invention of (communal) property, to the exclusion of outsiders was inevitable when human populations grew and remained concentrated in a relatively small area. Ten thousand humans depending on hunting for subsistence in a continent-sized territory (India, China, the Americas, Europe and Australia) could subsist in a steady state for millennia, and we assume that for a long time that is more or less what happened. They could always disperse and move on whenever, as Smith put it, the ‘chase’ became ‘precarious’, or if relations within and among the various bands became turbulent.

Once shepherding evolved beyond tending to the young of killed animals and was practised through breeding, the need to keep flocks and herds from wandering away, and the need to keep wandering humans from taking them away, introduced, slowly and gradually, concepts of property and all that went with them, first as communal property (jealously guarded against other communities) and eventually as private property (jealously guarded against all comers).

The later developments in agriculture had the same effect, only more intensely, because farming was more propitious for its evolution as a new mode of subsistence. It also changed everything else in respect of the ownership of the products of labour and the necessary co-operating factors, which reduced the share of an individual labourer in the final product by including the shares going to the other owners of the contributing materials, their dexterity and technology, and most particularly the owners of the land. This was no longer a simple case of the exchanges between the arrow maker and the hunter, based on their unambiguous (Natural Law) ownership of the products of their labour, before and after the transaction. The evolution of property was associated with the need for adjudication in disputes, the emergence of ‘norms’, ‘rules’ and ‘laws’, and for their enforcement by civil government.

Because primitive exchanges made those participating in them ‘better off’ (a major incentive of the division of labour), they had a self-reinforcing effect over time of encouraging pair-wise exchange behaviour throughout a band and, later, between bands. Therefore, Smith’s unique vision of ‘truck, barter, and exchange’, as the precursor to a social-evolutionary road for those who stepped onto it, is of the utmost significance for all that followed. Those that did not take this step, for multitudes of reasons, there being nothing ordained about individuals undertaking social change, remained subject to their existing mode of subsistence because ‘the original state of things’ for them continued, at first uninterrupted (they could migrate outwards), and later ended by inter-marriage or violence, as the ‘superior’ subsistence modes spread. (Extract from my Adam Smith: a moral philosopher and his political economy, Palgrave Macmillan, July 2008)

After property was invented, aligned with politico-religious institutions of civil government, the settled societies changed in kind and scope. Thus ‘Bill’ posts on his Blog on the Internet and we read it thousands of miles away dispersed around the globe.

He describes himself as a ‘libertarian-socialist’ and thousands of us have some idea of what he is talking about, whereas before the Age of the Hunter passed in a few small territories to the Ages of Shepherding and Farming, our predecessors (and, be sure, we share them as ancestors) spoke highly localised languages, intelligible to few humans outside their territories, and of whom, for millennia, they knew little if anything about.

Of relevance to a ‘Libertarian-socialist’, if one had ever been alive in ancient times, is the thought that it could have been different to what it was; that property as we understand it could have been more equally shared and not have accumulated in the hands of a few men (the ‘rich landlords’), who ‘love to reap where they never sowed’. Such experiments may well have been tried (in pre-history by definition, nothing was recorded!). We do know of one such experiment in legislation, introduced by one of the most authoritarian of regimes of all times, the Romans. Smith discusses the subject in Wealth Of Nations:

Rome, like most of the other ancient republics, was originally founded upon an Agrarian law which divided the public territory in a certain proportion among the different citizens who composed the state. The course of human affairs by marriage, by succession, and by alienation, necessarily deranged this original division, and frequently threw the lands, which had been allotted for the maintenance of many different families, into the possession of a single person. To remedy this disorder, for such it was supposed to be, a law was made restricting the quantity of land which any citizen could possess to five hundred jugera, about three hundred and fifty English acres. This law, however, though we read of its having been executed upon one or two occasions, was either neglected or evaded, and the inequality of fortunes went on continually increasing.” [WN: IV. Vii. 3: pp 556-7]

My brief point is that equality of property (or, indeed its absence) is not something that has been successful (it didn’t survive hunter-gathering, which is egalitarian at a low level of subsistence, and without the other attributes of knowledge that are beneficial) and where attempts have been made to enforce it from the top is soon corrodes under the normal human afflictions of family generations and their eternal verities – families with more sons than daughters acquire property by inheritance.

I submit these thoughts to ‘Bill’ for his consideration.



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