Rousseau and Liberty IV

The last post finished with some discussion of attitudes to property in Rousseau and Locke, and the historical changes of attitudes towards property. I emphasised the idea that communal property rights tend to dominate in the earliest stages of human development. Many qualifications could be made to that, and one of them is the role that informal arrangements for sharing  property that can be found in any stage of human history. The clearest examples though are maybe from  Medieval Europe where peasants, even if unfree and bound to a lord, made long lasting agreements about which land was someone individual family’s farmland, and which land was shared for some common purpose, including an understanding of how rights and obligations would be shared. The erosion of this life by the enclosure of  land for grazing sheep, with the aim of selling the wool across Europe, is one of the famous transformations of British history. Such transformations, which could be very traumatic for peasants used to surviving in that kind of customary economy, in which informal agreements about sharing of land played a large part.

This is not just the stuff of Medieval and Early Modern history, Elinor Ostrom who died last year, and won the Nobel prize for economics in 2009, was centrally concerned with these issues as they came up in agricultural and fishing communities in modern America, though also in Africa. She argued for the value of locally agreed informal practices with regard to property rights and usage, as opposed to externally imposed top down agreements from government or international agencies. This could all be framed in a very anti-capitalist way, but Ostrom’s views were partly influenced by Hayek, and she was very respected by libertarian free market economists, listen to Peter Boettke discuss her work here, for example. Ostrom’s interest in Hayek was combined with other main streams of free market thinking, including the public choice theory of James Buchanan and the Chicago Institutional Economics of Ronald Coase.  She spoke at the Institute of Economic Affairs, established in London under the influence of Hayek, and so on. Ostrom’s interest in the informal, in agreements below the thresh hold of statute law  co-exists with the libertarian-classical liberal belief in the value of property rights defined and enforced by law.  We can see both aspects in the Scottish Enlightenment writing of Huıme and Smith on political economy, law and ethics. Adam Smith was not only the author  of the greatest classic of political economy (An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations), but also wrote  an important book of moral philosophy (Theory of Moral Sentiments), and lectured on history of law (Lectures on Jurisprudence). 

The diversions above through economic history and the history of economic thought, do serve an important purpose in illuminating the relation between Rousseau and classical liberalism-libertarianism, which is what the current series of posts is discussing. Rousseau emphasises the value of two kinds of property: communal and small scale private property. It is the second which is the real basis of what Rousseau hopes for what for him would be best possible society. That society is a republic on independent artisans and peasants able to support themselves, with no dependency on anyone else, with no one dependent on them, and even with very little of the mutual dependence that arises from trade. This is recognisably a version of savage life as far as it is possible after the development of civilisation, and we should not be quick to assume that it is a second best for Rousseau, he does refer to the superior development of human faculties and moral capacities possibly in society, as opposed to savage life. That kind of life must involve the kind of informal agreements Ostrom studied. There is not a clear discussion of communal property in Rousseau, but there is some indication that the path from savage life ot society includes a period which is not savagery, but where there is no private property and none of the self-consciousness, self-interests, and competitive status seeking that Rousseau associates with property. His men of modest property ideal is his understanding of the best possible society given that fall into status obsession. It is always good to remember, also, with Rousseau that these ideals are not supposed to apply to most people in the world. Rousseau recognised that large nations, certainly anything larger and more populous than the island of Corsica cannot support such an ideal, since government in such a nation must be monarchical and must be conditioned by the irreversible nature of commercial society. As with monarchy, Rousseau does not think that it can be uninvented, however, undesirable he finds it. His political theory is not a  call to force a model of pure egalitarianism on all the nations of the world.

To be continued


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