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October 12, 2011

Comments

It gets really complicated once one goes to details as possesion vs. ownership, a distinction made as far as recorded history goes back. I am not versed in the proper English legal terms, so I better not try to juggle with them. In general I think any kind of property is based on a mutual understanding that certain things are not fully 'common' but are attached either to an individual or a group. But there is also the concept of something being property not of a person but of either an 'idea' (=immaterial) or another object (=material). Examples of the former would be objects 'owned' by a deity. The best description of the latter concept I know are the witchhouses in the books of Terry Pratchett. The witches do not 'own' their houses and they make a distinction between objects belonging to them and others that belong to the house. When a witch departs she will bequest only her personal belongings to persons of her choice. Everything else will be left to the next inhabitant. The houses belong to themselves, explicitly.

Hartmut,

you are referring to the concept of "corporatio sole", i.e a legal person that is coincident with a single individual, yet different from the natural person. For a real-life example, Queen Elisabeth II consists of several legal persons: first, herself, the private individual. Second, the "corporatio sole" of Queen in Right of United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Third, a large number of secondary "corporatia sola", like the Queen in Right of Canada etc. Each of these has its own property and obligations. Elisabeth II can only bequeth by will her personal property, not the property of corporatia of "Queen in Right of X"

Interesting stuff. But if history has ended, why bother with more, well, history? Heh.

I should think the externalities associated with private property are always present in one form or another under other institutional arrangements of land "ownership". Like the recent kerfuffle over barter 'leading' to a money economy (cf. David Graeber at Naked Capitalism, 9/13/11), it would be interesting to have some input here from anthropologists on how human societies deal with these externalities.

Although it's pretty complicated (takes quite a number of classroom lectures in law school), English law is based on the idea that land is owned by the sovereign, and estates are created from the land "in fee" - which is subordinate ownership. That system was transferred to the United States. The fee is a "bundle of rights." Fee simple absolute is the biggest bundle, consisting of the rights of possession, control, exclusion and enjoyment.

In the middle ages, the ritual of livery of seizin accompanied the transfer of title, where a clump of sod was actually given from one person to another. Many real estate matters are determined in courts of equity (in states that still have them).

People who "own" land in the United States hold under deeds or other evidence of title subject to certain prerogatives of the state such as eminent domain, escheat, the police power, and taxation. (Most property owners can trace their title back to a government land grant, so government didn't "take" those prerogatives; it reserved them.)

So, it's correct that people's ownership of real estate isn't absolute. Private property ownership has been very secure and stable in the United States (and Commonwealth countries) because the laws of transfer, inheritance, recording of deeds, etc., have been very meticulously enforced. That's why the mortgage crisis (highlighted by sloppy bank practices as to recording mortgages, etc.) is a shockingly destabilizing phenomenon.

Wikipedia has some informative articles: fee simple, allodial title, and maxims of equity being three, in addition to the "livery of seizin" article linked to above.

It's not just the externalities and relationships with neighbors -think of the complexities of water rights - that matter.

Private ownership of real estate requires a system of mapping and record-keeping to keep track of who owns what. Transactions need to be recorded. And that requires a central authority to establish the mapping system, maintain the records, and so on.

It also may possibly lead to a requirement for stronger law enforcement/defense systems. The carpenter can take his hammer and saw home with him at night. The farmer can't roll up his acreage and crops.

If Dr. S is asking which came first, private property or the state, there are two different answers. Pre-state, someone owned and controlled whatever he or she was strong enough to keep. Over time, chiefs "owned" the tribe's territory. This morphed into states and Sapient describes the process by which the state, under the common law, transfers property to individuals. Sapient actually describes this pretty well. The only thing I would add to Sapient's explanation is that once someone owns something in fee simple, assuming taxes, mortgages, etc are paid and the land is not subject to some kind of judgment against the owner, the state can't take the land back (unless the owner dies without heirs and without a will, but that' just another of the gazillion wrinkles to property ownership).

A couple of other notions about property today. Personal property may be titled like a car or a boat and the title is evidence of who owns the item. Ditto bank accounts, brokerage accounts, etc. A hammer or set of golf clubs, however, being untitled personalty, are owned, of course, by the owner, but how do you tell who that is if someone else takes possession? Thus the commonly stated and fairly accurate statement "possession is 9/10's of the law."

To further confound matters, there are important legal distinctions between real and personal property, such as the legal requirements for an enforceable contract for the sale of land vs the sale of a piece of art. Then, you have hybrid property, commonly known as fixtures which are personal property incorporated into realty. Who wants to buy a house and, after closing, show up and find all the toilets gone. The toilet is a fixture and adheres to the house. Refrigerators, maybe, maybe not. Fun stuff.

Thanks all you legal beagles for your explanations! You-all make it clear how much "property" in a general sense ("stuff you own") is not synomous with "property" in the sense of realty or land -- and how much our current system of landownership is not based on completely private control. So when e.g. Wikipedia talks about land, capital, and other forms of property they're conflating property that can be intrinsically private (capital, tools -- anything that can be moved, basically) with property in land, which is *never* truly private, but which always depends on a public legal structure, encapsulated by the English concept of "ownership in fee".

Fukuyama seems to be using the two meanings interchangeably, which is philosophically muddy at best. I think it also leads one to overlook issues such as externalities.

bobbyp: heh, indeed. To Fukuyama's credit, he did give up on neoconservatism; to his debit, he hasn't been as honest about his own motives and thinking as e.g. Andrew Sullivan has. There's a distinct lack of "I was wrong, here's how".

I'm hoping a philosopher will drop by and tell us whether Fukuyama's sloppy thinking about "property" is characteristic of the field in general, or just certain parts of it.

The toilet is a fixture and adheres to the house. Refrigerators, maybe, maybe not.

This maybe, maybe not business has resulted in some epic sh!tslinging and ensuing lawsuits between buyer and seller, in my personal experience. Mostly when the buyer expects things NOT specified in the contract to be there when he/she moves in.

So, someone winds up buying a washer and dryer they hadn't planned on, and blames the other guy instead of their plan, and its maker.

This maybe, maybe not business has resulted in some epic sh!tslinging and ensuing lawsuits between buyer and seller, in my personal experience.

It's why people like me make a living, although I would rather gargle fishhooks than get involved in sorting out a fixture fight.

In addition to the externalities, I wonder if the salient difference between land and other private property isn't the obvious one: land is not portable. With any other personal property, you have the option of picking it up (or climbing on board, in the case of a vehicle) and going somewhere else. But with land (and buildings on it), relocation is not an option.

That has obvious implications for the way that the state and individuals interact. If you don't like the way the state is being run, you can (in principle) pick up and move, taking your portable personal property with you. But you can not relocate your land -- so you have to either deal with the state as it is or change the state.

I would rather gargle fishhooks than get involved in sorting out a fixture fight.

I love that, and am stealing it.

I think Slart's laying the legal groundwork for taking his illegal Canadian toilet with him if he moves.

That would be a potboiler, what with Customs being involved, too.

If it went to the Supreme Court, I wonder if Justice Thomas would cite the Constitution's guarantee of Property, Property, and the Pursuit of Property and flush 230 years of precedent down the tubes?

I love that, and am stealing it.

Other things I'd rather do:

floss with barbed wire

take an ice water enema

Use as you see fit.

We had the opposite problem when we bought our house -- there were a washer and dryer we specified had to be removed from the house before we took possession, and an old fridge in the garage that was to be disposed of. None of that was done (along with several other items in the sales contract), and we filed a small claim; but it was an estate sale, and the seller's attorney filed a successful motion to have it moved from the small claims to the general docket, claiming his client would suffer "irreparable harm" if made to pay for those things they promised to do, thus they deserved discovery, depositions, etc.

Needless to say we had neither the time to undergo such an exercise nor the money to pay for it.

McK: "...which came first, private property or the state..."

bobbyp: "Like the recent kerfuffle over barter 'leading' to a money economy..."

Where oh where is Derrida when you need him?

I spent much of my career dealing with the history of a region (Southeast Asia) in which the fancy fixed forms of "property" described above were unknown or just being introduced. So we as historians have to figure out the versions of possession/ownership that pre-existed, because it was clearly not the case - as some naive Europeans suggested - that EVERYTHING was up for grabs.

Much of this we don't know, and of what we do know, there were thousands of local variants, but there are some general themes.

- You plant it, you own it (subject to whatever constraints there are on your own freedom or lack of debt).

- But that's the crop itself - rice, fruit trees - not the land, which is generally in plentiful supply and unowned. Your fruit tree may be in the middle of the jungle, or next to someone else's house. Your paddy field, in which you have invested more labor, is normally yours to plant again the next year, BUT may be subject to restrictions, e.g., you can't leave it idle or alienate it to "strangers" from outside the village. (I.e., you have "usufruct.") In either case, rights will revert to the village, usually represented by some council of elders. These same guys, or others like them, sort out water disputes.

- Tools, clothing, and domestic animals are normally considered personal property, to be disposed of (by consumption, sale, or inheritance) as one sees fit. In the case of large beasts, there is a default assumption that when they are slaughtered, all the village should be invited to the feast to share. (Which makes good sense in the absence of refrigeration in the tropics, anyway.)

- All of the above operates at the village level. Kings are distant, and have no direct say (or interest) in local property as such; their collectors come in every so often and take what they want/can. Might, as it happens, is right.

- "Law" as such is a latecomer, and its introduction can cause complexities and disharmony, as when the village headman, or whoever else is quick to figure out the new rules, runs off to the provincial capital and obtains legal title to lands already farmed by others. Usurpation ensues, usually accompanied by scuffles, great or small.

I don't know if any of this helps, but it is what it is. Usually.

This maybe, maybe not business has resulted in some epic sh!tslinging and ensuing lawsuits between buyer and seller

When my in-laws bought their first house, in Akron way back in the 40's, when they moved in they discovered the previous owners had removed every light bulb in the place.

Nice folks. Not.

I.e., you have "usufruct."

If I understand things correctly (open to question) "ownership" as usufruct was the pattern for North American Indians as well.

If you improved some land by planting etc., it was yours to use until you were done with it.

There were also claims at something more like a community or tribal level for access to desirable real estate like good hunting areas. Like, frex, what is now more or less the state of Kentucky.

I'd be interested to know more about this if anyone has the information.

dr ngo, that is exactly what Fukuyama describes as the default arrangement in human societies that haven't grown to the "state" level.

He links the development of a system of "private property" to the development of a capitalist economy, but I cannot figure out why, frankly. Indeed, it seems to me that capitalism as we know it develops as ingredients other than land become crucial to production. And Fukuyama does admit that in both ancient and modern China private property rights are vague and customary by European standards, but that didn't prevent ancient China from developing the first true state, and it doesn't prevent modern China from being economically dynamic. In both cases, property rights are "good enough" in practice, even though in theory they barely exist.

He links the development of a system of "private property" to the development of a capitalist economy

Locke weighs in on this in the Second Treatise.

In brief (and subject to the limits of my understanding):

Back in the day, people worked to directly create stuff that they would, themselves, use. Under those relatively 'natural' conditions, there was no value in accumulating more than you needed, because it would just go bad.

In fact, there was a negative value, because whatever you accumulated that went to waste, was something that was denied to another. It wasn't just pointless, it was wrong.

With the advent of money it became possible to accumulate more than you could use, in a form that would not spoil.

So, it became possible to accumulate more than you needed, and eventually to be able to employ that surplus to accumulate even more.

A somewhat related topic that is of interest to me is the disappearance of the commons, which occurred at approximately the same time as the emergence of capitalism, and in particular industrial capitalism, in the UK.

By 'commons' I don't mean the kind of weird abstract way we use the word now. I mean the plain normal availability of land, that either belonged to no-one in particular, or whose ownership was entailed such that rights of use were broadly available to non-owners.

Long story short, back in the day many people had rights to productive use of land without owning it. And, they used that land to directly produce what they personally needed to live. It was the norm. Making a living purely through wage labor or through one form or another of rent was the exceptional case.

... he hasn't been as honest about his own motives and thinking as e.g. Andrew Sullivan has. There's a distinct lack of "I was wrong, here's how".

When did he write this about publishing Charles Murray and The Bell Curve? Has he been honest about why he's anti-abortion? The flat tax? Supporting George W. Bush in 2000? He's still against ENDA (Employment Non-Discrimination Act).

On February 26, 2008, he finally apologized for supporting the Iraq War.

What the hell, you need six years to figure a thing like that out, I guess.

When did Sullivan apologize for saying "No one supported the Soviet Union as long as Chomsky did"?

I'm having trouble seeing Andrew Sullivan -- who also does much work I admire! -- held up as a model of intellectual honesty.

There are innumerable folks far worse, but he's deep in the medicore middle. I mean Charles Murray, and he's still saying he's proud of publishing it!

For you, Russell, the Tragedy of the commons for all!

It's got a Creative Commons license, y'know.

"I'm hoping a philosopher will drop by and tell us whether Fukuyama's sloppy thinking about "property" is characteristic of the field in general, or just certain parts of it."

My background is in political theory more than philosophy in general, but it seems to me that sloppy thinking about property forms some of the most influential work in political theory of all time. My view is that both Locke and Marx based their work on property, and neither clearly defined it or, in the end, really understood what it was. As a result, we've spent hundreds of years battling over issues of property, when property is only a small subset of the rules and obligations that society is made of.

Property is not objects, which exist whether someone owns them or not. It is the rules, rights, obligations, social values and customs regarding the use of things that people use -- who can use them, who is responsible for them, and everything else that defines their place in society. You might even call it the meaning of objects, the way they fit into the structure of our thought. For property to exist, there must already exist a social and linguistic structure in which objects can have meaning to people, which means Locke was wrong about the nature of the social contract. Society has to precede property.

sapient's comment reminds me of something that puzzled me recently, this Guardian article about the Chelsea football club and their stadium, the Stamford Bridge 'freehold'. (this is not the article, I think that it has been revised and incorporated this one, but it mentioned freehold in a matter of fact way and I had no idea what it was) So this led to looking up freehold and some reading about how the Stamford Bridge freehold arose and one of the reasons that it is in the news, which is that the freehold was eventually sold to a specially created club supporters to keep the land out of property developers hands, but the location and constraints of the stadium has been argued as keeping Chelsea from keeping up with other Premier League clubs because those clubs have moved to much larger stadiums that increase revenues, giving those teams more money to play with, as it were. Which suggests this conundrum, in that if the supporters want the team to compete with the likes of Arsenal and Man United, they are going to have to relinquish some aspects of the club that are not only highly nostalgic, but also rooted in legal practice.

This plugs into my basic problem with Fukuyama, which seems to be in this book as well, that he dresses up the fact that might has made right in the past with a veneer of intellectual arguments that it is somehow a necessary condition (or in this case, a precondition) of success. In this he resembles nothing so much as those who broke Native American reservations into privately owned parcels, so that individuals were then at the mercy of land speculators, (accounting for the phenomenon of checkerboarding) which then provides a rationale for doing whatever the hell you want with Native populations because they are both doing things of their own free will AND are clearly demonstrating that they aren't culturally sophisticated enough to be able to handle transactions in the modern world.

I've got some references about various collisions between Native American and government (both US and Canada) notions of the law if any one is interested, but it is more focussed on the present rather than historical patterns that Russell seems to be asking for. I'd also recommend Ian Frazier's _On the rez_ (the link is to the Atlantic article that grew into the book, I think) Ian Frazier is a hilarious writer (See Coyote v. Acme or Dating Your Mom, but be careful where you read them as you might start laughing like a maniac in some public place) and I think that it is only someone with a keen sense of what is absurd can really capture what happens at the interface between two incompatible conceptions of man's place in the world.

By 'commons' I don't mean the kind of weird abstract way we use the word now. I mean the plain normal availability of land, that either belonged to no-one in particular, or whose ownership was entailed such that rights of use were broadly available to non-owners.

Actually, the "commons" are an extremely realistic concept. And they have nothing to do with tragedies, if the system of customary law for commons is operating. A common pasture, for example, is not there simply for grabs. It has been there for centuries, and the local custom has specified very clearly how much cattle or sheep you may herd (or how much firewood you may take etc.) there.

The "tragedy of commons" arises from the breakdown of the customary system. Most systems of written law do not really recognise the local customary ownership forms. Then, it becomes possible for a person to ignore the custom and use commons in irresponsible manner. If he has the law on his side and the custom cannot be enforced, the tragedy of commons occurs rapidly.

Instead, a "commons" can be maintained indefinitely even in a society using modern law, if the collective ownership of the commons is codified and the administration is organised into a form that the legal system recognizes.

In addition to the externalities, I wonder if the salient difference between land and other private property isn't the obvious one: land is not portable. With any other personal property, you have the option of picking it up (or climbing on board, in the case of a vehicle) and going somewhere else. But with land (and buildings on it), relocation is not an option.

Not so fast with the buildings. You'd be surprised buildings of what size have been moved when the owner did (I am not talking about Abu Simbel here). I remember an old documentary film, I think from the 50ies, that showed in detail how American companies moved brick and mortar houses (and not just single-storey ones) as a whole over significant distances. This seems to have been a quite common practice at the time.
I wonder what would be the technical limit on that ;-)

the Tragedy of the commons

Actually, the "commons" are an extremely realistic concept. And they have nothing to do with tragedies, if the system of customary law for commons is operating.

Exactly right, and thank you Lurker for pointing this out.

The "tragedy of the commons" essay, and the line of argument that cites it, is basically based on a simplisitic maths puzzle that ignores how common land, or any other common property, were historically used and managed.

Farmer A did not abuse the commons by grazing more than his share of cows upon it, because Farmers B through Z didn't stand for it, and there was a social and legal (usually at the level of something like a town) framework for negotiating what a "fair share" was, and for enforcing the agreed-upon limits.

Land was viewed as a finite resource, that everyone or nearly everyone depended on for their livelihood in one way or another, and so access was made available to folks who needed it.

Ownership was another issue altogether.

The thing I'm always curious about wrt the commons is what the meaningful modern equivalent would be. In other words, what would a commons-based economy look like in a modern context.

Property is not objects, which exist whether someone owns them or not. It is the rules, rights, obligations, social values and customs regarding the use of things that people use

Also right on IMO.

Historically, I think it's more accurate (or more common) to say you have a property in something, in the sense of having a right wrt to it, or an interest in it, rather than saying you have the thing itself.

Re: ranchers, cows and grazing.

Overgrazing of both public has been the norm since the 1890's in the west. One of the recurrant themes of life in western red states is the incessant bitchig about government interference--meaning the weak and poorly enforced regulations on how many cows a rancher can run on our public land. Note the fee for the use of the land is not market value, which is a subsidy, and your tax dollars are used to kill our wildlife on our land on behalf ot the ranchers, another subsidy, and on the rare occassion when some repair is done to our overgrazed land it is our tax dollars that pays for it. Wanting something for nothing is the essence of conservative politics in rural parts of the west.

Remember the Sagebrush Revolution? It was one of those ploys ginned up by Republican politicians mining the credulous for votes. The idea was to sell public land outright for the use of private business. Very popular until it dawned on the people who had subsidized use of it the land that they would not have the bucks to compete with big corportations who wanted to buy our forests and prairies.

Private land management varies, of course.

johnw:

For property to exist, there must already exist a social and linguistic structure in which objects can have meaning to people

Nope -- to test, try taking a chewtoy away from a dog, or coming into the dog's home uninvited. No linguistic structure required.

Other animals have senses of both "personal ownership" of items -- food being at the top of the list -- and of "real estate", in the form of what we biologists call "territory".

One reason people cling so tightly to the idea of "private property" IMHO is that it taps into some pretty primal impulses, I would even say instincts: items I control are MINE, the place I live is MY TERRITORY, keep out.

One reason people cling so tightly to the idea of "private property" IMHO is that it taps into some pretty primal impulses, I would even say instincts: items I control are MINE, the place I live is MY TERRITORY, keep out.

Whether it's instinct or not, I can't say. It is basic and it isn't going to change. Nor should it.

"Nope -- to test, try taking a chewtoy away from a dog, or coming into the dog's home uninvited. No linguistic structure required."

I'm well aware of the acquisitive instinct. The instinct to claim something for yourself is not property, but the instinct which makes the institution of property necessary. It's like the difference between the instinct to eat and the art of cooking. Property is not simply claiming something, but a network of rules and rights that also defines which items you may not use, how you may use things, how you may transfer rights to things, etc.

Although I plead general ignorance on the issue of commons, my tiny bit of knowledge and research leads me to understand that it was a way that people could conduct subsistence farming in an equitable way. But, still, subsistence farming is hugely difficult work, and depends (oftentimes) on favorable environmental conditions from year to year, not to mention the fitness of the farmer, and social conditions which don't interfere with farming (lack of warfare).

The idea of commons is certainly a romantic and attractive one, and useful in modern contexts. Public lands and natural resources such as air and water (including oceans (and fish)) should be commonly available, and regulated for optimal stewardship. But I'm not sure that the concept of commons, as it existed to support subsistence farming, wasn't made obsolete by the possibility of providing a more stable standard of living through specialization.

And I wonder how the history of violence (referring again to the Steven Pinker book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which is only now on my reading list) was affected by the cultural changes in how we deal with property.

This is an extremely interesting thread, and I'm raising questions without having read all of the material that is now on my list. Our lives have become so comfortable that I try to assess which societal innovations we would ideally keep, and which we would discard, in order to maintain our approximate standard of living, while making it sustainable and socially just (spreading the wealth around).

Private property is not, and has never been, absolute. I totally agree that property depends on the "network of rules and rights" which, to my mind, means governmental laws, private contracts, and sometimes custom, but always government to enforce all of those things.

First, I'd like to note that I agree with you. Subsistence farming is a terrible line of work, although until 18th century, it was the only game in town for most people in the world.

But I'm not sure that the concept of commons, as it existed to support subsistence farming, wasn't made obsolete by the possibility of providing a more stable standard of living through specialization.

In fact, the British system of village commons disappeared with the "enclosure" movement. The idea was that the commons was bought out by the largest landowner. The minor co-owners, i.e. the crofters, received portions that were too minor to really support anything. Then, they had no rational choice but to sell their portion to the major landowners. Because they also did not have the necessary social capital to invest the monetary payment, it meant that the minor users of commons lost their livelihood because of the enclosure. Then, they had to "specialize" and move to town for work.

A commons system is not incompatible with the idea of modern society, although it is necessarily a very minor thing. For example, in Finland, where I live, most fishing waters near shore or inland are owned collectively by the villages. (The fraction of the ownership is based on the land ownership.) Such areas are then administered by fishery boards elected by the owners of the collectively owned water area.

"Commons"-type land ownership even exists in modern contexts in Finland. For example, it is rather typical that parking lots in the cities are founded as a commons owned by the nearby housing cooperatives. This is because a commons has an extremely light administrative burden and its purpose cannot be changed without unanimous agreement. So, that is a good way to cement the use of a parcel of land.

my tiny bit of knowledge and research leads me to understand that it was a way that people could conduct subsistence farming in an equitable way.

First, I should say that my knowledge of the institution of the commons is, at best, tiny-bit-plus-one, where 'one' is something smaller than 'tiny bit'.

So, apply salt grains as needed.

That said:

Not just farming. Access to a variety of resources were managed through the commons model. Hunting and fishing rights, grazing or pasturing rights for livestock, rights to collect deadfall wood for fuel, rights to gather naturally occurring edibles like nut berries and fruit, rights to gather other useful materials from the land.

Basically, in that world and that economy, the commons granted access to means of production adequate to make a livelihood.

But, still, subsistence farming is hugely difficult work

That's true, but it's what folks did at the time. I'm also not so sure it's quite as hard as you imagine.

And it was common, even the norm, until quite recently. It's how my father, born in 1920, grew up. My in-laws also.

There are still, today, tons of farmers who work small holdings for their own use and for local markets. Some have another day job and do it on the side, some not.

The idea of commons is certainly a romantic and attractive one, and useful in modern contexts.

The only thing I want to dispute here is the 'romantic' part. The commons, as an institution, was profoundly pragmatic.

The 'romantic' part is our modern nostalgia for pre-industrial society. But that's pretty much independent of the idea of a commons, per se.

I'm not sure that the concept of commons, as it existed to support subsistence farming, wasn't made obsolete by the possibility of providing a more stable standard of living through specialization.

I guess I have two comments here.

One is toward the idea of specialization. That's no doubt a significant aspect of our industrial and post-industrial economy, but it's very very far from being a necessary part of modern life.

People have in many ways lost the habit of doing useful stuff for themselves, but they are certainly still capable of doing useful stuff for themselves. And the loss of that habit as an aspect of basic, everyday life is, by my reckoning, something that's extremely recent, like the last 40 years or so.

My mother in law made most of the clothes my wife's family wore when she grew up. I mean dresses, shirts, suits and ties. This was in Akron OH in the 50's and 60's.

My uncle grew probably 80% of the produce his family ate, in his front yard. This was up until he got too old to deal with it, which for him was sometime in his 80's.

I know, personally, a generous number of folks who grow their own food, or otherwise make build or trade for useful stuff, today. They're not weird old hermits, they are folks who own successful businesses and live very modern lives.

Do it yourself. A motto for the ages.

The second thing I want to point out is that, in an economy where real-world ground-level unemployment is something like one in six people in the work force, and where you can lose every damned thing you have if you get sick, I'm not sure that growing your own food or otherwise procuring the needful things of life through your own direct efforts comes off that badly in terms of 'stability'.

Then, they had no rational choice but to sell their portion to the major landowners.

In most cases, there wasn't a lot of choice involved.

The commons as an institution was eliminated largely by law, not by folks' choice and preference.

Russell,

I know. The enclosure process was slow, as each commons was closed by a private act of parliament. The exact details varied a lot. Typically, those who had some kind of title (usually not in fee, but a freehold) got either a minimal, worthless piece of land (say, a few square yards) or an equally minimal monetary compensation. Neither allowed them to continue subsistence agriculture.

However, when you are talking about your family living in "subsistence agriculture", you are wrong. Your family lived in a world of commercial agriculture. In a real subsistence agriculture society, money is seldom even seen. The peasants don't have it and don't need it. And if they have it, they save it for a rainy day. It is a situation where only metal tools and salt are purchased commercially. That level of society existed in most parts of Eastern Europe and in many places of Western Europe until 19th century. In England, it vanished by late 18th century. In the US, it never really existed.

In the US, it never really existed.

Actually, you are seriously wrong.

In the US it was the norm in many or most places, for much of US history.

Regarding my family in particular, my father was born in Dover GA in 1920. My grandfather had some land but no particular job other than self-sufficient landholder.

They raised livestock, grew corn and market produce for their own use. They traded eggs and surplus corn for stuff they could not grow, like coffee and salt, and basic dry goods. When my father was little it was his job to take the eggs to the store in town, it was worth his @ss if any broke on the way.

They ground their own corn into hominy, which was the local staple, in a more or less homemade mill. It was two big circular rocks with grooves cut in them, mounted in a frame. I've seen it, my uncle had it on his property as a kind of souvenir.

My mother-in-laws' family, in contrast, took their surplus grain to a local mill, which would grind it and keep 10% by weight to resell. I've been to the mill, it's near Butler PA, and is now a museum.

My old man was an excellent shot, and supplemented what they grew by shooting small game like squirrels and game birds.

I don't know if they had a tractor or not. They did have mules for a lot of brute labor. My father was kicked in the face by one, he was in a coma for about a week. I think they traded stuff with the doctor for sewing him up.

My grandfather was an extremely handy guy, and he did some mechanical work on a kind of one-off, occasional basis for cash. They used that to buy stuff they couldn't trade for.

That's how my old man grew up. He went to a two-room school house through the eighth grade, then he left the farm, which he hated because my grandfather was a bitter old SOB, and worked around GA and SC on WPA projects until he joined the Navy after Pearl.

There you have it. Call it what you like, I call it subsistence agriculture.

A couple of semi-semantic corrections. Lurker, when you say Russell is "wrong" about describing his family as living in subsistence agriculture, you are in error. It is true that they did not live in a predominantly subsistence *economy*, but speaking of "subsistence farming" for households that produced most of their own food and goods well into 20th century America is a usage fully established by custom, as even the most casual search would show. (I'm sure I remember a 1970s song called "Subsistence Farming in Vermont," but it is unknown to Google, alas.)

In practice, subsistence economics and commercial economics tend to lie on a continuum, and I've spent many years studying societies that are moving fitfully along this continuum, occasionally backward as well as forward (e.g., in the Depression and World War II, there was some "reversion to subsistence" in parts of the Philippines). While it may be useful for analytical purposes to distinguish just where on the continuum you draw the line, to decree that those who choose to draw the line elsewhere are "wrong" is, well, wrong.

As for Sapient suggesting that commercial/specialized agriculture is inherently more "stable" than subsistence farming in general - not to mention the fact (as noted by others above) that in the enclosure movement the transition was far from voluntary for those on the lower end of society - this is even wronger. Dependence on a single crop - sugar, cotton, whatever - runs the risk both of crop-specific plant diseases and of price collapses that can easily cut a farm's income in a manner far more devastating than any but the worst of subsistence winters. (Again, look at studies of the impact of the Depression in various Third World economies in transition from subsistence to cash-cropping; as a rule, those farthest along in the transition suffered the most.)

In the long run it may be hoped that the accumulated surplus, both individual and societal, provides a cushion that enables farmers to survive blights and market downturns. This hope is why many subsistence farmers eventually make the transition to cash-cropping. But as Keynes pointed out, in the long run we are all dead anyway.

In practice, subsistence economics and commercial economics tend to lie on a continuum

I agree, and would even expand this in a slightly different direction.

Subsistence economics and commercial economics quite often coexist, in the same place, at the same time.

Not all fish swim in the same ocean.

As for Sapient suggesting that commercial/specialized agriculture is inherently more "stable" than subsistence farming in general - not to mention the fact (as noted by others above) that in the enclosure movement the transition was far from voluntary for those on the lower end of society - this is even wronger.

Just to clarify, my comment wasn't about commercial/specialized agriculture, but was about specialization, generally. Some people grow things, other people make clothing, other people have restaurants and inns, other people make bread, other people are butchers... (And I'm just positing, not arguing.)

Also, as a huge DIYer myself, I'm not in any way criticizing the idea that people should be able to do and make things. I think it's worthwhile to learn how things used to be done for the sake of appreciating history, culture and craftsmanship. It's very satisfying to create things that are unique or beautiful. Or to feed people things that one has grown. I try to make it a habit (not always followed) to eat something that I've grown every day. But as a result of my extensive dilettantism, I also know how difficult and time consuming it is to prepare and preserve food, how exhausting it would be to make food happen in bad weather, what a chore it is to keep things clean when you're doing projects, and what a relief it is that I don't have to rely on my own manual labor to stay alive. Because sometimes I just don't feel like doing that stuff - I'd rather go on a reading jag or go on a trip somewhere. I'm glad there's a backup plan - a modest income and the store.

I definitely think that commons, cooperatives, and other economic regimes that aren't just about "private property" and "profit" are worthwhile concepts. And to the extent that "back to the land" people can help us figure out a more sustainable way of life, I am totally in favor of it. But I too have relatives who had experiences similar to russell's parents, and they ran away from that life as fast as they could. And when asked about it, they say things like "It was hard!" and "It was cold!"

Oh, and one other thing: it's nice to know how to do things in case one ever needs to live on one's own efforts. To have a certain amount of "commons" for people in that situation would be wonderful.

To emphasize: I'm not arguing against commons. Not at all.

Sapient: I have no problem with about 99% of what you're saying. It would be nice to have subsistence/survival skills (I have none), but it's a hell of a way to make a living, compared with our more specialized society, in which I, and others like me, thrive.

I only balked at the term "stability," which is not the quality I associate with a specialized economy. Broadly speaking, the more complex an economy, the more that can go wrong, as witnessed most prominently by cities in wartime or under enemy occupation (e.g., Manila, 1942-45). No food is coming in, there is no market for many occupations (no gas for taxis, no tourists filling the hotels, factories closed, etc.), and the whole thing can collapse in less time than you might think.

Of course when a specialized economy is up and running and generally prosperous, as ours is, a lot can go wrong and hardly anyone starves to death. Almost everyone is better off than they would be hardscrabble farming. But "stable" it's not.

dr ngo:

I only balked at the term "stability," which is not the quality I associate with a specialized economy.

I'm surprised. Certainly in the related field of ecology, highly-diverse ecosystems full of specialist species are generally more stable than those with only a few species, no matter how generalist.

Broadly speaking, the more complex an economy, the more that can go wrong,

I'm not sure about that. The difference it seems to me -- also something Jared Diamond talks about in "Collapse" IIRC -- is that in simpler economies things go wrong more *often*. With subsistence agriculture, a general crop failure (due to e.g. drought) is likely to come along several times a generation, with widespread starvation and hardship. In a complex economy, it takes a very large event such as war to cause widespread starvation.

Diamond uses the metaphor of different sizes of boat. Out at sea, small boats have to deal with *all* the waves, but can ride up and then down the very largest ones. An ocean liner won't notice the small waves, but can be broken apart by the very largest ones. Since small waves are common, small boats experience a much more unstable existence than large boats.

Since I respect Doctor Science, who disagrees with me, yet can hardly countenance the thought that I myself might be in error, I was puzzled for a while . . .

I think the crux is that DS is speaking of the stability of "systems" whereas I (upon reflection) had been thinking of how "stable" life was for individual (or family) participants in the system. I continue to believe that subsistence-oriented farmers are, though regularly dirt poor [sic], less likely to be wiped out completely by the vagaries of weather or the market than the "specialist" producers who under normal conditions are likely to be more prosperous (= less poor) but are more vulnerable to fluctuations. Yet the system taken as a whole may survive (as DS suggests) all but the mightiest of "waves."

That, at least, is my initial reaction to this apparent discrepancy. There are similar paradoxes in the analysis of many such situations, e.g., sedentary farming produces a larger surplus available for appropriation (taxation or whatever) than shifting cultivation or hunting/gathering, thus leading to stronger states BUT it is by no means clear that the average sedentary farmer is better off - even before taxation - than the average shifting cultivator or hunter/gatherer. Since states write history and dominate the cultural discourse, they decide what is "civilized" which, surprise surprise, is what they do; others are barbarians.

But I digress.

Dr ngo,

I yield to your superior knowledge and confess my error.

highly-diverse ecosystems full of specialist species are generally more stable than those with only a few species, no matter how generalist

I think diverse and adaptable aren't necessarily the same thing, though. I would tend to think that as economies are concerned, diverse, adaptable economies would be more stable than less adaptable economies. And I think that dr ngo has at least implicitly equated specialized with unadaptable.

I could be completely wrong in interpreting him this way. And offhand, I can't think of any examples of a specialized economy that's highly adaptable, in the context of modern, Western civilization.

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