Thursday, January 2, 2014

Against Economics

Andro Linklater’s latest and, sadly, last book (he died as it was being published) started as his attempt to make sense of the global economic crash and mutated into a paean to the potential and problems inherent in private property.

He knew this was an extraordinarily old-fashioned approach to modern fiscal analysis. But, as he writes toward the outset of Owning the Earth, “The idea of individual, exclusive ownership, not just of what can be carried and occupied, but of the immovable, near-eternal earth, has proved to be the most destructive and creative cultural force in written history. It has eliminated ancient civilizations wherever it has encountered them, and displaced entire peoples from their homelands, but it has also spread an undreamed-of degree of personal freedom and protected it with democratic institutions wherever it has taken hold.”

This shouldn’t give you the idea that Owning the Earth is a heartless, self-congratulatory free-market screed. Rather, Linklater’s villains are the Austrian School (those two patricians, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, in particular) and all those who confuse the production of individual wealth with democracy and the promotion of purely private interests with the public good. “The iron law of private property,” he concludes, “turns out to be a paradox. Although it promotes individuality, it only works by giving equal weight to the public interest.” His heroes, then, include Adam Smith (not for the “invisible hand” but for its corollary: the idea that the market is designed and tempered to the public interest), James Madison (for having “embraced the diversity of opinion as evidence of free society”) and Wolf Ladejinsky (who pioneered land redistribution while working for Douglas MacArthur in the 40s and early 50s.)

Linklater romps through history with the insouciance of Minnesota Fats attempting a five-ball bank-shot combination to either beat or sucker a pool hall opponent. The book hopscotches centuries and continents and moves from the Levelers to Lehman Brothers, with Locke, Lenin, Lincoln, Ladejinsky, Linux, and the Louisiana Purchase in between. He concludes that private property promotes democracy – but only when it’s an expanding resource, available to all, cheaply and efficiently. Once the frontier closes or is disposed of (or, in global intellectual property agreements, if patents held privately are given the force of law while varieties of communal ownership are not) the egalitarian and equitable teamwork between property and democracy breaks down. 

His assertion that the massive government-led rescue plans developed after the recent financial meltdown proved that "the Austrian experiment had failed" may be an overstatement--after all, free market absolutists are still vocal, almost everywhere. But Linklater is more interested in small futures than big ones. As he notes, rivalries over land and resources may create vicious conflicts, but don’t always cause the many types of legal and quasi-legal sharing arrangements to rupture. “Even three wars between India and Pakistan have not caused either of them to break the Indus Water Treaty they signed in 1960. Underpinning these formal regulations for sharing water, as well as thousands of other informal arrangements, has been the understanding that it is worth limiting individual needs so that everyone benefits from a limited resource. However bitter the disputes, it is overshadowed [grammatical oddity in the original] by the realization that taking whatever one wants risks destroying the entire system and ruining everyone.”

Owning the Earth flips traditional pieties about property on their head. Linklater doesn’t cite Peter Kropotkin or Karl Polanyi or E.F.Schumacher or Elinor Ostrom – but his work is imbued with their spirit.

“There is an alternative to the single, ultimately unviable measure of success imposed by economics,” Linklater concludes. “Around the world and throughout history, neighborhoods have succeeded in a million different ways.”

In that spirit, he offers a political slogan for the 21st century:  “It’s the neighborhood, stupid.”



one querulous cavil: Oddly, Owning the Earth contains some grammatically questionable constructions and lots of oddball spellings (among them: Hayek is "Friederich" instead of Friedrich, the Chinese city Shenzhen is "Zhenzhen," Mao Zedong is spelled "Zhedong" on first reference, and George H.W. Bush is referred to as "George H. Bush.") Misspellings can creep into any volume, but these seem egregious.

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