Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

81. What's So Special About Land?

Note: This post is the eighty-first in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

In 'Systems of Survival' Jane Jacobs describes what all the occupations that subscribe to the Guardian syndrome have in common:
"It finally struck me. They're all concerned with some aspects of territorial responsibilities. The condition is the work of protecting, acquiring, exploiting , administering or controlling territories.


Not territory in the abstract. ... Real concrete territory. I suppose we might call this the territorial syndrome. Taken as a whole, it also describes the classic heroic virtues and values."

But this raises the question, what is so special about land, that organizations dedicated to managing it have an entirely different ethical system from commercial organizations?

One thing that differentiates land from the other things we buy and sell is that, as any real estate agent will tell you, they aren't making any more land.

I touched on this earlier, back in this post about how humans were 'cowboys on a spaceship'

Given a finite commodity, all the values in the commercial syndrome which relate to maximization of production aren't particularly useful - in fact they can be counter-productive depending on what purpose they are directed to.

So if you can't make any more land, the only question becomes how to divide the land that does exist. Note that this is a zero-sum game, unlike the positive sum commercial world.

In this zero sum world, gains will come at the expense of someone else's loss and, leaving aside the possibility of mutual enemies for the moment, there is no benefit from working together with someone else, just like how, in the zero sum game of chess, there is nothing to be gained by trying to work with your opponent and little to be gained via trade.

But it's not just that land is finite, there's also the fact that, even without much industry from man being applied, land is quite valuable. At the very least, it keeps one from drowning. Most land can also be used to provide other plants and animals, and sometimes valuable minerals as well.

So with the land being so valuable, and with it being near impossible to make more, whoever holds land will likely be able to make a profit on that ownership simply by renting it out to whoever needs to use it. Economists have a term for when you can make an excess profit because others are unable to compete with you (you can only ever have one piece of land in the same place) and that term is 'rent' or 'economic rent' . Of course the fact the word used is 'rent' reflects the fact that land ownership is typically the most common way in which such an excess is earned.

But why not simply have a market for land, and have people pay whatever price they think the land is worth? The obvious problem, of course, is that someone might decide that it is cheaper to simply take the land, rather than buy it. You can't really hide land or move it somewhere, so once someone decides to take it, it's fight or flight. And as Machiavelli said, 'there is no proportion between one who is armed and one who is unarmed.' But an arms race in which everyone strives to be better armed than everyone else is unproductive because being the 'most powerful' is a relative term. This takes us back to Hobbes, who explained why we needed a single organization in charge of the land that was so powerful, nobody could contest it.

So land is finite, valuable, and can be taken by force, all of which combine to necessitate having someone to defend it.

But maybe that defence service itself could operate according to commercial principles. People could simply hire someone to protect their property. There's no need to abandon the market just because we need to buy some defensive help, right?

There are a few problems with this approach. One is that in conflict there are economies of scale, such that there is a benefit to having a larger force for hire, which means that those groups which are able to form a single united bloc will have an advantage vs. their neighbours. Another problem is that conflict is quite dangerous and history shows that forces working for money have historically performed poorly when matched up against forces that were working for some other 'higher' purpose and thus had a higher morale or willingness to die for the cause. Another problem is how can you prevent the people you hired to protect you from simply turning on you and putting themselves in as dictator over you. Finally, what do you do if someone makes the people defending you a better offer?

Another factor to consider is that network externalities mean that when constructing something that spans territory via a network design, it is efficient to only build one. For example, to build two road networks that don't connect would be highly inefficient. Similarly, most areas only have one water system, one electricity grid and so on. So organizations that span land with a network type structure tend to be monopolies. Some historians speculate that the reason Egypt was one of the first places to develop a centralized government was because constructing an irrigation system is the sort of network based monopoly that works best when organized by one central entity. Whereas competition leads to gains for society in most markets, when it comes to building territorial networks, competition just leads to inefficiency, so an organization that can control an area of a certain scale has an advantage over smaller entities.

Finally, the dynamics of conflict generally work out so that a single contiguous piece of land is more defensible than scattered territories. This is partly due to the network effects described above, and partly due to economies of scale in combat and an increased need to divide one's forces if one is defending multiple pieces of land that are not connected. Of course, this is subject to changes from technology and with the rise of the British Navy, for example, England was able to build a far flung empire of places whose only connection was that they bordered the sea. This dynamic lends itself to territories being made up of a contiguous piece of land governed by a single entity.

So, to summarize, because land is both finite and valuable, it serves as a source of (economic) rent, or profit that can be achieved without work. This unworked for profit is sought after by many, leading to violent conflict. Any particular group can maximize the rent it earns from land when it can minimize destructive conflict within the group and maximize the effectiveness of conflict with enemies in order to expand the amount of land it controls. The economies of scale in combat and the natural monopoly nature of networks lead to groups coalescing into contiguous land blocs for defensive and efficiency purposes.

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  • The tendency to a single contiguous piece ruled by one entity is not so very strong in either property or jurisidiction, as the history of the Holy Roman Empire and of peasant landholdings. To some extent this tendency is the result of a conscious, recent (past thousand years, picking up stean in thr past five hundred) movement towards a single sovereign and "clear" property rights. cf

    Best Wishes,

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:22 PM  

  • Maybe, but my recollection of Greek/Roman/Chinese/Medieval history is one of battles for territory, and the territory generally seemed to be contiguous blocks from what I recall.

    Do you know where I could find more details on the no-contiguous nature of Holy Roman Empire or peasant (medieval European?) holdings?

    By Blogger Declan, at 6:06 PM  

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