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.
Rose sets out four “management techniques” — or legal regimes — that can be used to keep exploitation or use at an efficient level: In “Do-Nothing” there are no legal controls on use; “Keepout” controls who is entitled to exploit the resource and who not; “Rightway” prescribes how users may use or exploit the resource; and “Property” grants individualized property rights to users. Each is progressively more sophisticated and better at preventing overuse of the resource, but also more expensive to run, and so society is best off, Rose argues, in climbing the ladder of legal regimes as resource congestion increases. Not only is Rose’s model a four-stage theory; it also tracks Smith’s association of increasing pressure on a resource with increasingly elaborate legal regimes culminating in private property.

Finally, the massive literature on “common property resources” identified with Elinor Ostrom, the International Association for the Study of the Commons, and related institutions, seems to borrow from stadial theory in several respects. The empirical studies in this body of work were carried out primarily with regard to the (now) exotic worlds of hunters, shepherds, and peasant farmers about which stadial theorists wrote, not to the more familiar (to most of us) worlds of common property in urban dwellings, businesses, or cultural endeavors;  a tendency all the more striking in light of Ostrom’s background in urban studies.  They placed a heavy emphasis on the evolution of property institutions.  And, as Carol Rose has noted, this literature is replete with references to “pressure” on resources,  a prominent feature of classic stadial thought.

Unlike Hardin or Demsetz, the common property resources school clearly rejected that aspect of mainstream Enlightenment stadial thought that saw progression through the stages of civilization and property forms as unidirectional, indeed indications of progress.  At the same time, however, the affinity of this type of commons theorist to the Romantic, pastoral variant of stadial thought, with its valorization of pre-commercial and preindustrial societies and their common property arrangements, seems clear. In Ostrom’s seminal Governing the Commons, for one, generally written in the dry tone of institutional analysis (and explicit about not all traditional systems of resource management being effective), the author sometimes seemed to lose herself in some of the color of her case studies, as when describing ancient Spanish water courts:
The Tribunal de las Aguas is a water court that has for centuries met on Thursday mornings outside the Apostles’ Door of the Cathedral of Valencia. . . . Its proceedings are carried on without lawyers, but with many onlookers. A presiding officer questions those who are involved in a dispute and others who may be able to provide additional information, and the members of the court, excluding the syndic whose canal is involved, make an immediate decision regarding the facts of the case in light of the specific rules of the particular canal. . . . The final decisions of the court are recorded, but not the proceedings. 
More generally, hundreds of studies on common pool resources in the Ostromian vein followed, holding up indigenous commons as a model for sustainable management of resources.  As one self-critical member of the Ostrom school has written,
The idea of the “commons” harkens to a mythic time—before The Fall or before Capitalism or before The Gods Became Crazy—when people lived in harmony with each other and with nature and hence there was no need for the institutions of private property. . . . The romantic appeal of “the commons” is doubtless part of the old Western suspicion that “individualism” is flawed, and that a better way of life could be found in small rural communities where people shared in common even the very land upon which they depended. . . . [R]omanticization of prestate, preindustrial, pre-Columbian, pre-whatever human society is central to this narrative.
Next, how stadial theory influenced commons theory. (The full article is here.)

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