Can We Balance 21st Century Prosperity and Pre-Modern Solidarity?

Aristotle writes that while “property should be in some way communal, in general it should be private.”

His argument for private property is the obvious one, he provides an incentives-based/social optima argument, that private property leads “to greater care being given [to the property], as each will be attending to what is his own.” He immediately adds, however, “But where use is concerned, virtue will ensure that it is governed by the proverb, ‘friends share everything in common.’”

Lest we read the proverb too restrictively, recall for Aristotle, friendship is political in the broad sense of the word: Aristotle famously posits that humans are political animals, drawn together to live because of our innate sociability and not simply out of the common benefits derived from living together. For Aristotle the constitutive element of the city-state is friendship, “since the deliberative choice of living together constitutes friendship.”

It is the mixture of private and communal property that is of interest. Aristotle writes that systems that take the best from both private and collective ownership are “already present in outline form in some city-states, which implies that it is not impracticable.” He mentions Sparta particularly, including a provision for collective property providing “when on a journey in the countryside, they may take what provisions they need from the fields.”

Sparta wasn’t the only place that had this sort of provision in the ancient world. Akin to the Spartan law was one in ancient Israel, recorded in Deuteronomy: “When you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, then you may eat grapes until you are fully satisfied, but you shall not put any in your basket. When you enter your neighbor’s standing grain, then you may pluck the heads with your hand, but you shall not wield a sickle in your neighbor’s standing grain.” The practice apparently remained in force centuries later; the synoptic gospels report Jesus’ disciples “picking heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands, and eating the grain” as they passed through fields.

The Spartan law would seem to permit a greater taking than the Israeli law. Spartans could “take what provisions they need from the fields,” suggesting that they could take food with them from the field. The Israeli law allowed consumption in the field to satiety but prohibited carrying any grapes out of a vineyard “in your basket,” or harvesting grain with the help of tools.

Of course, Israel also had a complementary gleaning law that allowed the needy and the sojourner to enter fields and take what remained after the initial harvest by the owner. From the description in the book of Ruth, the law allowed gleaners to remove their gleanings from the field to take home with them. The “field eating” law, in contrast, provided greater permission, to take from a neighbor’s as-yet-not-harvested “standing grain,” yet restricted the taking only to what one could eat in the field itself.

From Aristotle’s brief description, the Spartan law does not appear to be limited to the poor or to sojourners, as was ancient Israel’s gleaning law. The Spartan law appears to provide a larger scope for the collective claim, allowing anyone to “provision” himself or herself from a field.

Setting aside the question of whether we might want to adapt these laws to modern society, it’s difficult to think how laws like these might be adapted and implemented in modern society even if we wanted to. Indeed, it is difficult to think how they actually worked as practical matters in Sparta and ancient Israel.

To be sure, Aristotle is explicitly cognizant of incentives created by private ownership; ancient Israel’s practice seems to have lasted for centuries. Perhaps, in eras in which much of the population farmed, and few traveled beyond their locality, the demands placed upon any one field were relatively limited. Today in the U.S., only two percent of the population is directly involved in farming.

Or perhaps it’s a question of virtue. Perhaps these societies were indeed intimate enough to sustain virtuous practices and minimize the temptation, quite literally, to get a free lunch day after day. In the modern era it’s hard to think that people wouldn’t descend on fields and strip them bare, undermining the incentives Aristotle recognized for private ownership in the first place. While “friends share everything in common” for Aristotle, they presumably do so with an eye to avoid eating each other out of house and home.

What might account for the loss of intimacy and, hence, the loss of the type of friendship and virtue that might sustain practices like this?

Historians of the American market revolution highlight how the market revolution replaced local, face-to-face markets with regional, even national markets. Because of their distance and their size, anonymity now characterized produce and consumer. Unless serendipitous, neither knew, or knows, the other.

I’ve never been quite convinced that this ostensible spatial implication of the market revolution is actually a product of the expansion of the market itself. The division of labor itself would seem to carry significant spatial implications whether the product of that labor was distributed via markets or not. Whatever the underlying pattern of property ownership, even without market distribution, any economy taking advantage of the gains of increasingly specialized labor would presumably require greater scale, and so would require regional, if not national, concentrations of production. Anonymity between producer and consumer results from the division of labor and would not seem to require market distribution. One implication of this anonymity would be the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of sustaining the type of friendship (or solidarity) which might support distinctives form of communal ownership practiced in ancient Sparta or ancient Israel.

This is not to say the modern world is without some compensating benefits. Finely particulated divisions of labor have produced material prosperity that would also have beggared the minds of the ancients. Indeed, so great is this prosperity that I am doubtful that many people, if actually offered a choice between 21st Century prosperity and pre-modern solidarity, would choose the latter over the former. We can nonetheless recognize it as a tragic choice. Not simply that we can’t march to a field and provision ourselves, but that our society cannot generate the virtues necessary to sustain such a possibility even if we wanted to.