Land tenure

Book 6, Chapter 10

§1. Nobody really owns land 100%. There are “sleeping partners” such as the landlord and ruler/state/community that will restrict rights of use and/or collect taxes on land. The “managing partner” (who works the land) pays the sleeping partner, but this “money rent” is not the same “real rent” as defined by economists (see B5C10).

§2. Indeed, there is quite some confusion on defining money rents, which can deviate wildly from real rents.

§3. Landlords can (and do) find ways to extract more from tenants, perhaps by requiring work on the landlord’s estate or a share of crops. In most cases, the tenant loses out over time. In an extensive footnote, Marshall discusses how Indian tenants are subject to a range of changes from which they can often recover quickly, but he misses the fact that many Indians starved under British control (“recovery by death”?)

§4. A tenant paying cash rent will work harder to produce crops than a tenant paying a share of the crop yield, since sharecroppers give a percentage of all crops while a renting tenant keeps 100% of the yield (rental costs are “sunk). Sharecropping also requires more landlord oversight, if they landlord wants maximal yields.

§5. Land ownership brings pride and independence, but it can also trap those who work too hard to gain too little (compared to working elsewhere). Their children, likewise, may wait for an inheritance rather than go get work. Opportunity costs matter!

§6. The “English system” of renting for cash (not shares) means that landlords can focus on choosing good tenants and then staying out of the way. This system, Marshall claims (correctly, I think) leads to output “as good as in the Netherlands”.

§7. Innovation in agriculture is slower than in manufacturing, since (a) bright people tend to leave the land for towns, (b) it’s hard to adopt successful ideas from one farm to another (often, quite different) farm, and (c) bad manufacturers are driven out of business faster than bad farmers.

§8. Clever farmers cannot thrive with smaller farms because they lack the scale that will reward planning, management and capital (machine) investments. Smaller farms then just “blunder along”.

§9. Small-scale farms should pay higher rents per acre, to compensate landlords for their attention, but smaller farms should also be encouraged (required? subsidised?) to maintain a local “balance”. Co-operatives can help smaller farms with productivity and profitability, by sharing capital goods, marketing expenses, etc.

§10. Landlords should not pursue rents at all costs. Sometimes, it is better to leave a less productive tenant in place, for the good of the community, or to share the costs of disaster or risk, for the sake of future cooperation. In towns, likewise, it is good to set aside some open lands for all to enjoy, rather than building everywhere and leaving no open spaces (“parks”).

This post is part of a series in the Marshall 2020 Project, i.e., an excuse for me to read Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1890 first edition/1920 eighth edition), which dominated economic thinking until Van Neumann and Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour (1944) and Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis (1946) pivoted economics from institutional induction to mathematical deduction.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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