Property Rights 3: Communal Property, Enclosure and the State
Were classic (fee-simple) property rights an unintended side-effect of government's desire to tax? We look at communal property, private property, taxation and some of James C. Scott's ideas in his book Seeing Like a State.
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I guess that individual property is tied with individual freedom, because the will to possess -that is to make whatever you wish with some thing- seems atavistic and it is an important part of our idea of individual freedom. This atavistic will also involves some violence in the first appropriations, but if we try to abolish the individual property a sustained violence is needed to repress the natural tendency to possess and to act freely that all we carry inside.
Thanks for adressing this interesting topic and identifying property rights as what they are: A controversial, theoretical construct in economics.
Wallace, North & Weingast's "Violence and Social Orders" has some material on the development of fee simple property rights in medieval europe. They explained the meaning of the latin terms involved, but now I can't remember then. Elinor Ostrom's "Governing the Commons" has material on how communities have managed resources and avoided (or failed to avoid) the tragedy of the commons. Additionally I'd note that Timur Kuran's "The Great Divergence", while not about communal property, does discuss how the failure of the islamic legal system to evolve led them to fall behind europe. Having multiple claimants to property as a result of inheritance laws & partnerships (rather than having an immortal corporation own everything) made it hard to keep a business going, unless you endowed a waqf which had an inflexible public/communal purpose to serve.
James Scott proposes that fee simple property is an invention of the state to make control of people and taxation of people more feasible and efficient. Does the historical record support this hypothesis? I'm not a historian, but I doubt that historical records support Scott's proposition. It seems entirely likely that individuals owning property privately precedes the existence of any state. Every individual takes himself to own himself and whatever he produces, just as Locke proposed. Private ownership of plots of land seems much more likely to be a natural extension of self ownership and use of land, rather than an intentional construct of a set of people calling themselves "the state."
Would a modern society even be possible without enclosure? I mean that the surplus labour resulting from agricultural property merging had to go somewhere. They probably went to jobs with a comparative advantage (factories?). So in the long run could you not argue that all parts of the former community benefitted although only after some time.