Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Sumptuous commons

My university scholarship exams were in mediaeval economic history, but I have hardly looked at the subject since. Several recent posts on blogs I read have talked about things that ring bells, notably sumptuary legislation and the "tragedy of the commons", and this has set me pondering.

Sumptuary legislation was found in a number of ancient societies but appeared in England in the last half of the fourteenth century, and basically it sought to preserve class differences by preventing lower social orders from wearing certain types of cloth, or cloth that had been prepared with particular dyes. I think some dietary restrictions were also imposed. Carbon rationing or increased taxation for, say, flights have been compared with this, on the grounds that they will have the effect of reserving for the better-off privileges like frequent air travel, driving on certain roads or in certain areas. This has of course started to happen, with the congestion charge in London.

The tragedy of the commons is the idea that when a resource is held in common, it is abused. Common land in England was used by the inhabitants of villages for grazing livestock. Land can be over-grazed, so the maintenance of commons in good order depended on people restraining themselves from putting more than their share of stock on commons. It was suggested in a 1968 essay by Garrett Hardin, and later explained by the idea of the prisoner's dilemma, derived from game theory, that people will tend to break these requirements of self restraint and put more than their share of stock on commons. When enough people do this, the resource is ruined. This, it is argued, is what is happening with the European Common Fisheries Policy.

The problem with the theory of the tragedy of the commons is that there wasn't a tragedy; commons existed for centuries and were not over-exploited. Hardin's essay, and some economic comment based on it, is predicated on a sort of idealised commons that has never existed, not could it because of human behaviour. The "iterated prisoner's dilemma" (same link as above) provides a theoretical understanding of why this is. But even without this explanation, people notice if a resource is being abused, and take action if they have a stake in the resource. Over time, what started as disputes recorded in manorial rolls, where Fred has been putting too many sheep on the commons, there is a complaint and he is ordered to remove some, became the system of "stinting", whereby ownership of property gave specific, limited rights to use of the commons. In other words, rights in commons rapidly became linked to other property ownership, even though they remained invested in a common resource.

Analogous arrangements for fishing rights in areas of the western Atlantic seaboard have seen stocks rally; indeed, fishing - and rights of hunting animals with a range of movement that exceeds limits of individual property - is an area that requires such arrangements. Only in the complete absence of property rights are resources over-exploited, as might have happened to large fauna in Europe, North America and Australia when nomadic humans first appeared there. Over time, even with nomadic societies, social rites tend to emerge that limit, if not eliminate, this over-exploitation.

Where I live, the commons were not enclosed and livestock still grazes every summer. They are not over-exploited. The problem with the European fishing policy can be expressed in one word: governments. The enclosures were simple theft of common rights of ownership by the wealthy, in an era that saw the Corn Laws and Parliamentarians arguing for the preservation of slavery. Large property owners took land from small property owners, exploiting the fact that their land use was vested in unusual arrangements.

On the face of it, sumptuary legislation was also something the nasty rich did, but it's a bit less simple than that. The fourteenth century depended on social stratification in a way that the eighteenth didn't; the fourteenth century was feudal. This wasn't entirely to the benefit of the fourteenth century, of course. Technological progress was exceedingly slow and where commercial activity did progress, it was driven from areas like the plains of Lombardy, where social stratification was less pronounced - it's still amusing to read the outrage of some 12th and 13th century German chroniclers on this subject.

The first half of the fourteenth century had seen repeated bad harvests succeeded by the first importation of plague. European population fell by 30% to 50%. Sumptuary legislation followed this. Falling population had two effects: the value of property was reduced, the value of labour was increased. Some marginal agricultural land abandoned during this period did not come back into cultivation until the nineteenth century.

Property down, labour up - huge social mobility and increased prosperity for the masses. The lower orders could afford the best, and the knights were annoyed.

Compare this, out of interest, with the present philosophy of growth and immigration. Property goes up in value, labour down, we see decreased prosperity (albeit in a bigger overall economy), people working longer hours for less, and social mobility at an all time low. Comparisons of the living standards of mediaeval peasants and modern employees are not to the benefit of the modern, when you strip out anachronisms. Fewer hours were worked, for more, by the peasants. In the thirteenth century - before the population decreases - the average landholding of an English freeman was a half yardland, about 7 acres.

There was a fashion in the 1970s for comparing the thirteenth century with the twentieth. Economic systems, it was argued, have ceilings, though these are most clearly seen in hindsight. Calculations were made of the ceiling of the economy at different times (I had to perform such calculations for the thirteenth century). The thirteenth century saw unprecedentedly high populations throughout Europe, large scale migration from the country to cities; cities became increasingly violent and lawless; ill-health became more common. Life expectancy fell. And the economy had reached its ceiling. No further growth, it was argued, was possible with the very static technology of the day.

Not all this is analogous with the present, but some is. A collapse, it was argued, had become inevitable. Such a large population was more vulnerable to the effects of a series of bad harvests than a smaller one would have been. Crowded urban environments were ideal breeding grounds for diseases and concentrated populations were ideal for spreading them. By 1300, it was just a question of what the collapse would be caused by, not whether it would happen.

Doomsters argued that the technology of the twentieth century was mitigating it, but that a larger problem was developing, that the problem was analogous to that of the thirteenth century, and a collapse was again looming. This might not have been right, but it wasn't as silly as Malthus and his fans. There really had been a calamity in the past and this was an attempt to explain it and extrapolate from it.

Today, immigration, not birth rates, is driving population rises. Strip that out, and you'd have a gently decreasing population. Interestingly enough, despite the fact that we have massive immigration today, migration controls are very recent. Up to the First World War, people could pretty much travel where they liked without passports. Yet there wasn't this large scale migration (when there was, it was called "invasion"). Why?

Partly because of technology. It's easier to travel nowadays. But I don't think that explains it. The lure of richer pastures is overwhelming and people could travel, just more slowly.

It comes down to property rights. You couldn't just move into a village and start grazing livestock on the commons in the past. You had, in effect, to be invited into the complicated web of rights, duties, obligations and tenures that existed. People who lived in an area owned that area, far more than they do today.

The problem again is the governments that have stripped property rights from individuals. The enclosures were a part of the beginning of this problem, not a welcome move to a more rational use of land based on ownership. The example of the context wherein sumptuary legislation began in mediaeval Europe shows that significant benefits can derive from a dwindling population. Technology actually makes this even more the case, reducing the need for labour and multiplying the consequences of an individual's actions. A technological society could see an economy growing overall while the population contracts slowly - unlike the pattern in the past - which would mean an even greater enrichment of individuals living in that society.

The really big driver today for population growth is the problem of pensions. While these are catered for by the state, growing numbers of young tax payers are needed. Change this to a pattern of individual provision, and everything else could follow.

In all this there seems to be a blueprint for a better society. One with no restrictions on migration, but far less immigration because property rights have been restored to their rightful owners - individuals. A slowly contracting technological society sharing a growing pot between fewer people. Marginal land becoming wild and green again, increased abundance of wildlife in these areas.

This would be the consequence of the implementation of the libertarian ideal of individual freedom and property rights, and it would be the entirely inevitable consequence, with no management or overall government policy driving it. It isn't a utopian ideal. It isn't even a vision of a sort of rural idyll; people are going to continue, largely, to live in cities. It's just cause and effect.

But I don't think it's the effect every free-market or libertarian advocate foresees.


Tim Worstall said...

Worth pointing out that Hardin was aware of the way in which the Commons were in fact regulated by traditional management systems. He wrote a letter to Science on the point: where there are such tribal or traditional systems of management in place then they are no longer open access commons and the tragedy does not take place.

Peter Risdon said...

Outside entirely nomadic societies, it's quite hard to think of an example of an open access commons that - unlike the European fisheries - is not the product of government intervention.

The important point about the English commons (and perhaps any other commons that have actually existed in settled societies) is that use of them was a form of property right, linked to ownership of other property - a particular strip field or cottage might bring with it the right to graze a specific number of a specified type of beast on the commons. This meant they worked well.

The conclusion must be that governments should restrict themselves to providing legal protection for the property rights of individuals, and the enforcement of contracts freely entered into by individuals (taking it as a given that a company is legally an individual "person").