Digging for Fairness in Land Use

Andro Linklater (1944-2013) was a Scottish journalist whose fame rested on frequent detours into popular history, including the acclaimed Measuring America (2002). Shortly after Linklater’s death, his last book was published. Owning the Earth bears the fascinating subtitle, “The Transforming History of Land Ownership.”

This last effort of his is admirable in many ways. It turns the history of land ownership into a lively subject. Linklater frequently resorts to powerful images and insightful stories. In this historical tour de force, Tolstoy and Shakespeare are good companions, and so are the pilgrims of the Mayflower, who quickly learnt how inexpedient was their original idea to manage the new American settlement on the basis of common ownership of land.

The author sees individual ownership as the fundamental pillar of our liberal and tolerant Western societies—but also as the way in which destructive “greed” pollutes social life. He cares for a balance, and finds it in the writings of John Locke and Adam Smith.

It must be said, on the debit side, that this interesting canvass is painted with too wide a brush. Perhaps any “universal history” is bound to be filled with mistakes, even if the observation point is chosen with care and precision. Linklater’s orchestration of a wide number of thinkers and events, alas, is poorly rehearsed.

For him, the revolution of individual private property took place in 16th century England, when it first became permissible for

one person to profit from the land, regardless of the consequences to the community. The whole basis of land ownership up to that moment—mutual obligation, recognition of custom and tradition, and the encompassing sense of justice that tied all to the same set of values—became irrelevant.

If Linklater maintains that feudalism has been somewhat misinterpreted, and its complexity largely overlooked, he still acknowledges that private property rights in land meant that “for the first time in European history, a society was about to escape the choke on population growth that was created by subsistence farming.”

The market economy had a long history before the advent of modern capitalism, he says, but he believes the latter, and the idea of land as a commodity to be bought and sold, led to the demise of the open-field system. He buys into an old argument for communal, open-fields agriculture: that lower productivity was more or less consciously traded for a beneficial communitarian spirit.

This is an argument with a venerable history. Most notably Karl Marx considered enclosures “the parliamentary form of robbery.” (More recently, the evidence has shown that parliamentary enclosures were far less relevant than voluntary, agreed ones.)

Linklater on the other hand rejects the idea that “original appropriation” disenfranchised the future proletariat, making it malleable clay in the hands of the capitalists. There might be evidence of communal ownership of land, but Marx’s interpretation is “simply wrong,” he says, because

what his research revealed, and modern anthropology confirms, was not a chronological development, with the equitable distribution of land progressively destroyed by selfish family ambition, but an uneasy equilibrium that occurred in a variety of forms in different countries, sometimes lasting for centuries.

Unfortunately, Linklater’s more nuanced view of “the intricate and infinitely variable forms of family ownership” and communal structures of tenure doesn’t include a similarly nuanced view of the impact of enclosures. According to him, the introduction of boundaries came hand in hand with an “insidious element”: the “land revolution” made greed king. This process had notable advantages (the land became more productive and could feed a growing population) but also brought a sort of inherent political instability.

The author should have paid attention to the work of Deirdre McCloskey on this question. In a few essays, McCloskey noted that “intermixture” of the kind that was observed in the scattering stripes of open fields cultivation “is an inefficient way of establishing equality.” McCloskey has argued—very persuasively—that the raison d’être for stripes was the need to reduce risk. Villagers “were driven to hold land in scattered strips to hedge against disasters befalling only one type of soil (such as extensive rainfall on low-lying clays) and to diversifying their crops, holding land in each of the open fields of the village, to hedge against disasters raising the price of only one part of their food.”

This view has strong implications. Linklater associates the development of individualized property in land with “allowing greed to be unconstrained by law.” Altering the way in which land was owned brought a fundamental change in societal values. Allowing single individuals to extract value from land may have increased its productivity, but it let the genie of greed out of the bottle. The notion of a “morality of property” is reasonably associated by Linklater with John Locke, but this is only possible because of the long-debated “Lockean proviso.” Writes Linklater: “The moral authority that fairness gives to private property is what allows the institution to exist independently of law and government.”

Productivity may be, as he points out, a “shallow foundation” for the great edifice of a society based upon individual property rights. But so is the idea of a “fairness” (inevitably vaguely defined) that somehow stabilizes them.

However, if human greed is such a powerful force, one wonders how it came to pass that the intricate nexus of customs and uses of feudalism was enough to constrain it. McCloskey’s thesis on enclosures allows us to see man being pretty much the same creature, before and after enclosures.

None of this should be taken to suggest that Linklater flirts with socialism. He doesn’t. He is best characterized as suspicious of great concentrations of land ownership, including large concentrations of land ownership under the flag of government. He views communistic experiments with a commendably jaundiced eye.

Speaking of Soviet Russia, for example, he points out:

The failure of the collectives was underlined by the extraordinary productivity of the tiny privately owned plots, measuring less than two acres each, that every farming family was allowed to possess. Altogether amounted to about 4 percent of  Soviet farmland, but provided 30 percent of national agriculture production, and the quality of their poultry, vegetables, and fruit was far superior to that of collectives. The contrast made it evident that the problems of Soviet agriculture were fundamentally a matter of ownership.

As mentioned, he believes a balance is needed between individual property rights and the rights of society. He recurs frequently to “fairness,” which he sees as embodied in the Lockean proviso, and to the sociability discussed by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).

But the Linklater approach is perhaps best captured in his treatment of the libertarian “economist” (sic) Robert Nozick’s rectification principles. As is well known, Nozick’s entitlement theory of property comprises a principle of justice in acquisition, a principle of justice in transfer, and a principle of rectification of injustice. This series is perfectly consistent, as Nozick’s theory is “historical”: property is legitimately held insofar as it was legitimately acquired or traded. The last principle is necessary, for Nozick, to deal with holdings that are unjustly acquired or transferred.

“Both Nozick’s supporters and his critics,” writes Linklater, “tended to overlook the degree of government intervention entailed by this last requirement.”

He goes on:

But [Nozick’s] rationale for believing that justice had to provide the foundation of a private property society hardly differed from that of Adam Smith: crudely put, the system would work better, offer more freedom, and require less adjustment if everyone, propertied and unpropertied, believed its rewards and penalties to be distributed fairly. The paradoxical outcome was that the most selfish system of ownership had an altruistic motive for promoting fairness even at the expense of its immediate self-interest.

This is little more than a milkshake of words. Does a “selfish system of ownership” really have an identifiable “immediate self-interest”?

Sure, a property-owning society needs legitimacy. And yes, anybody who believes property to be founded in some version of a theory of natural rights would admit the need for “rectification” of past wrongs. But how does this open the door to a bigger government than the one Nozick was willing to justify?

Modern social democracies intervene vastly in people’s lives, but it would be very naive indeed to imagine they do so to “rectify” an unjust distribution of landed properties. Note that Nozick’s rectification principle is very precise: it has to do with property holdings, not vaguely defined, self-perceived “injustices” that society inflicts on you or me. Applying it doesn’t open the door to New Deal-like interventionism.

Linklater’s soft spot for modern liberalism brings him to see contemporary libertarianism as a dangerous evasion of his much-cherished Lockean fairness. To wit, Owning the Earth ends with a denunciation of the financial crisis as “a failed experiment” in Austrian economics.

It is very difficult to make sense of these pages of the book, for Linklater’s command of Austrian theory is not impressive. Also it is surprising that, in a book dedicated to the question of land, Henry George’s theory of booms and busts only makes a fleeting appearance. On the other hand, Linklater advances a novel and somewhat quaint interpretation of Carl Menger: he thinks the Austrian’s theory of money had consequences that were the “opposite of what his twentieth-century followers had claimed—they made government regulation of financial markets absolutely essential.” Such an interpretation raises the question that original insights often prompt: if this is so, why didn’t somebody else think it before?

Ludwig von Mises is dismissed as an “upper class” and “resolutely snobbish” economist whose views were “restricted by his background.” Quite frankly, anyone encountering Mises’ ideas for the first time by reading Owning the Earth will not come away understanding them very well. Linklater focuses almost exclusively on a couple of chapters at the beginning of Socialism (1922) to make the point that, by dismissing the Lockean account of original appropriation, Mises was also parting with that “fairness” which alone can suffuse property with a sense of legitimacy. In actual fact, in rejecting an “eternally valid idea of justice which it is the duty of the State to recognize and realize,” Mises wanted to point out that the fabric of law is in itself a longtime evolutionary process.

The author makes Mises out to be a cynic based on a couple of quotations: on the origin of property being violence, and on human nature’s not having harbored “an idea of justice from the beginning.” These are not solid grounds on which to convict the venerable Austrian economist of such a sin. Indeed, just to quote from the same chapter of Socialism:

In Liberalism humanity becomes conscious of the powers which guide its development. The darkness which lay over the paths of history recedes. Man begins to understand social life and allows it to develop consciously.

Mises was not a proponent of a “Hobbesian capitalism,” whatever it may be.

It would be uncharitable to compare Linklater’s Owning the Earth with Richard Pipes’ Property and Freedom (1999), the other wide-ranging book on the subject of property that comes to mind. It would be uncharitable not only because Pipes is one of the master historians of our time, but also because Pipes, by dealing mainly with England and Russia, tuned what began as a very broad analysis of property to a precise focus.

If we were to speak of Linklater as having committed any sins, his would probably have to do with ambition. Nobody could have mastered so vast a subject as the one he took on in his last book. It is, however, a most pleasant read, and because it is, it will surely conquer the imagination of many. Its occasionally muddled interpretations will weaken its impact. But Andro Linklater’s gallant effort to put the issue of the ownership of land back at the center of the debate deserves praise.