Friday, December 28, 2018

Savagery, civilization, and property IV: The aboriginal property rights debate

In the last post in this series we saw how modern commons theory tracked many of the features of stadial theory. In this post I begin trying to uncover the routes by which the early modern theory reached modern thinkers on property.

The modern commons theorists discussed in the last post did not explicitly refer to the Enlightenment or Romantic thinkers whose theories may have influenced them. Yet the striking similarities between these two groups of theories, separated though they were by two centuries, seem to provide evidence of influence. It is likely that thinking in terms of civilizational stages was simply so deeply entrenched in the intellectual baggage of educated Westerners, whether through study of the classics, of Blackstone, or of Gibbon, that modern commons theorists replicated its patterns as a matter of course. Nevertheless, I suggest we can also trace more concrete lines of influence through the intertwined disciplines of anthropology and human ecology, as well as through the worlds of international development and conservationism.

Eleanor Leacock
An important branch of the field of anthropology’s research agenda was largely set in the mid-nineteenth century by stadial theory, and thereafter developed to a significant degree in dialogue with it. Anthropological works that clearly influenced modern commons thought, in particular those cited by Demsetz in his important 1967 article, were very much part of this dialogue, thereby infusing his work and that of others writing in the economic tradition with a large dose of stadial thinking.

The Victorian-era thinkers who strongly influenced anthropology in its founding era — Henry Maine, Lewis Henry Morgan, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels — were themselves influenced by the stadial theories of the late eighteenth century, and saw societies as evolving through modes of subsistence or production, viewed largely through the lens of property. But while Maine saw the transition from common to private property as a sign of civilization, Morgan, and, following him, Marx and Engels, saw this transition as a form of injustice and source of inequality (though perhaps a necessary one). 

Morgan, based on his knowledge of American Indians and reading of classical sources, argued that property was a key factor in the evolution of society as it progressed from a state of savagery (based on hunting) to barbarism (based on herding and farming) to one of civilization:
The idea of property was slowly formed in the human mind, remaining nascent and feeble through immense periods of time. Springing into life in savagery, it required all the experience of this period and of the subsequent period of barbarism to develop the germ, and to prepare the human brain for the acceptance of its controlling influence. Its dominance as a passion over all other passions marks the commencement of civilization. It not only led mankind to overcome the obstacles which delayed civilization, but to establish political society on the basis of territory and of property. A critical knowledge of the evolution of the idea of property would embody, in some respects, the most remarkable portion of the mental history of mankind.
As twentieth century anthropology developed the tool of ethnographic fieldwork, the work of many anthropologists, particularly in North America, revolved around supporting or disproving Morgan’s evolutionary account, with one arena of contention concerning the question of whether “primitive” hunting societies had private property or not.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Coal as a green fuel

Earlier this year Environmental History published Germán Vergara's "How Coal Kept My Valley Green: Forest Conservation, State Intervention, and the Transition to Fossil Fuels in Mexico". Some excerpts:
This article explores how state policies and legislation of successive Mexican governments in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sought to curb rapid deforestation by fostering the energy transition to fossil fuels (coal and oil) in industrializing regions of the country such as the Valley of Mexico and Monterrey.
Anthracite coal breaker and power house buildings,
Madrid, Mexico, circa 1935
In the 1850s, both conservative and liberal governments in Mexico took an interest in forest conservation. In 1854, during General López de Santa Anna’s conservative administration, the recently created Ministry of Development (Ministerio de Fomento) asked mining districts nationwide for information about the extension and characteristics of the forests being logged for mining. The government agency also inquired about local regulations governing forest exploitation and reforestation efforts. In 1857 the new liberal government, despite ongoing military challenges from conservatives, sent a memorandum encouraging state governments to enact legislation protecting forests. In typical fashion for Mexican liberals, the government not only delegated the responsibility to local authorities but also made clear that conservation measures should not interfere with the timber needs of industries and mines.
Calls for forest conservation became more common in the 1860s. Key institutional actors in Mexican science, such as the Mexican Society of Geography and Statistics (Sociedad Mexicana de Geografía y Estadística), began publishing significant work on forest conservation. In one editorial, the editors of the Boletín (the society’s publication) expressed alarm over rapid forest loss. Like Río de la Loza, they blamed factory owners and the indigenous population, who “cut and destroy their only patrimony,” although they also criticized owners of large estates (hacendados). The journal also published the work by conservationists such as Romero Gil, who drew from Alexander von Humboldt and Mexican mining engineers to argue that forests prevented drought and fostered human health. In one article, Gil offered an overview of earlier forest legislation and called for reviving provisions from colonial forest laws, particularly those relating to coppicing (horca y pendón). In an effort to inspire analysis and discussion of earlier legislation, the Boletín reprinted an 1845 Mexican forest code, one of the first issued in independent Mexico.
As coal production increased, it became clear to state officials that Mexico needed a modern legal framework to facilitate and regulate coal extraction. A heated debate broke out between those who argued that coal deposits ultimately belonged to the nation (following the tradition of the colonial mining ordinance, Ordenanzas de Minería) and those who defended the preeminence of private property rights. To a degree, the controversy was rooted in confusion over the natural composition of coal and other fossil fuels. For some experts, and seemingly many laypeople, the organic origins of coal and oil made them nonmineral. Critics of this position posited that although both were organic in origin, they had been formed by geologic nonorganic processes, thus qualifying them as minerals. Most experts agreed and considered both coal and oil as “fossil fuels” (combustibles fósiles). As such, coal and oil should fall under the old colonial tradition of state ownership that only governed minerals.
The matter was settled in 1884 when the federal government enacted a new mining code. The code’s authors were mostly interested in creating suitable conditions for Mexico’s industrialization and were perfectly aware that a key component of the project was the large-scale adoption of fossil fuels for industrial power. The new code recognized coal and oil as minerals (as under colonial law) but gave private owners full property rights to surface and subsoil mineral wealth. Thus the Mexican state relinquished its claim to being the ultimate proprietor of subsoil commodities, including coal and oil, and declared that private landowners could exploit those deposits without prior government authorization. The code also sought to stimulate coal and iron mining by exempting both from taxes for fifty years. It is important to note that scholars have often interpreted the mining code of 1884 as an attempt to attract foreign investment, overlooking its long-term effects on Mexico’s energy transition to fossil fuels. The code not only regulated the fossil fuel market; it created it. Beyond spontaneous market processes, it was lawmaking—that ultimate tool of politics and policymaking—that proved instrumental in Mexico’s transition to fossil fuels. The code remained the main legal framework for the coal and oil industry until the enactment of the Constitution of 1917.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Savagery, civilization, and property III: The commons theorists

In the last post in this series, we looked at the way early modern "stadial theory" connected between stages of civilization and property regimes. Now let us examine some of the classics of modern commons theory, noting the fondness of theorists for stories reminiscent of various aspects of stadial theory. I wish to highlight here not simply that commons theorists of many stripes tend to connect pressure on resources to property regimes, as unanimity on this point could plausibly be explained by observations of a pervasive phenomenon. It is rather the connection of these two parameters — pressure and property — with the early modern idea of civilizational stages characterized by hunting, pastoralism, agriculture, and sometimes commerce, that I find striking. Whether seeing these stages in terms of the march of Progress or a fall from Edenic bliss, nearly all commons theorists seem to be attracted to the basic narrative of stadial theory.

Garret Hardinʼs “Tragedy of the Commons” illustrated its argument against common property with a parable of a common pasture.  While neither Hardin nor William Forster Lloyd, from whom he borrowed the story, argued that society does or should progress along stages of development, their descriptions of the common pasture echoed some elements of stadial theory: shepherds have no “property” in their pastures, a characterization consistent with stadial thinking (and clearly disproved by historical work on actual common pastures).  Such pastures are subject to overgrazing, as in the story of Abraham and Lot adduced by Dalrymple.  Moreover, Hardinʼs article echoed stadial theory at several points, such as when he writes that “the logic of the commons has been understood for a long time, perhaps since the discovery of agriculture or the invention of private property in real estate,”  or in his argument that increasing pressure on resources drives enclosure of the commons:
Perhaps the simplest summary of this analysis of man’s population problems is this: the commons, if justifiable at all, is justifiable only under conditions of low-population density. As the human population has increased, the commons has had to be abandoned in one aspect after another.
First we abandoned the commons in food gathering, enclosing farm land and restricting pastures and hunting and fishing areas.
Approximately contemporaneously with Hardin’s article, Harold Demsetz published his “Toward a Theory of Property Rights.”  Here the similarities to stadial theory were yet more prominent. Demsetz, relying on the work of anthropologists who had studied native tribes of the Canadian northeast, described societies that had moved from hunting to husbandry of fur-bearing animals (husbandry being either a sort of pastoralism or agriculture). Demsetz argued that this change in subsistence methods was accompanied by a change in property arrangements — lack of private property gave way, as a response to new, commercial demands for pelts, to defined property rights in land:
Herman Moll, inset from Beaver Map (1715)
We may safely surmise that the advent of the fur trade had two immediate consequences. First, the value of furs to the Indians was increased considerably. Second, and as a result, the scale of hunting activity rose sharply. Both consequences must have increased considerably the importance of the externalities associated with free hunting. The property right system began to change, and it changed specifically in the direction required to take account of the economic effects made important by the fur trade.
While not tracking Enlightenment stadial theory precisely, Demsetz’s account overlapped with it in several respects (not at all coincidentally, as we will see): echoes of the progression hunting-pastoralism-agriculture-commerce, an accompanying shift to increasingly defined property rights, and an explanatory mechanism based on increasing pressure on the resource.  Regarding this last point, Demsetz’s consideration of externalities was markedly similar to Adam Smith’s argument that “when flocks and herds come to be reared property then becomes of a very considerable extent; there are many opportunities of injuring one another and such injuries are extremely pernicious to the sufferer.”

Demsetz’s work was extremely influential on property theorists in the legal academy, many of whom continue to make use of the stadial paradigm. James Krier, for instance, recently advanced a modified Demsetzian account of the evolution of property rights from hunter-gatherer societies with communal ownership to agricultural ones with individual ownership.  Demsetz’s model also had major impacts on the economic literature on the commons (e.g. Anderson & Hill's "The Evolution of Property Rights" and the literature it spawned),  as well as on the “common pool resources” literature associated with Elinor Ostrom.

Perhaps less obvious, but in some respects uncannily similar to Adam Smith’s theory, is Carol Rose’s influential classification of management strategies for common resources.