02 September 2009

Property v. Wealth

It isn't wealth that pins one down, it's property. If one owns land, houses, a business - then "voting with your feet" becomes much more costly. . . .

There are other categories of possession that tie one down: a hereditary title, or a family estate, or military rank, or an academic post. Or an established professional practice. Or family. Or friends. "He travels the fastest who travels alone."

- Rich Rostrom (comment at the bottom).

The statement was made in response to a claim that homeownership reduces labor mobility and more generally the ability to vote with one's feet, because it is a proxy for wealth. The distinction between wealth and property made in the quote above, and the breadth of the definition of property used in this context, are both worthwile ones that illuminate democracy, particularly at the local government level and zoning disputes.

At the opposite extreme from a personal residence, hereditary title or academic post as ties to place are shares of publicly traded stock owned by an small investor, where exit (i.e. voting with your feet) which is also known as the so called "Wall Street rule" is usually a preferrable option to exercising your legal democratic rights as a shareholder.

A few observations around this concept. Today, rural people are much less geographically mobile than urban people - they are tied by work and home alike to a place. This, along with the fact that rural populations can often support one a single entity of a particular type, may help explain the strength of rural cooperatives, and also why rural areas manage to sustain such an extremely high ratio of elected officials relative to the number of voters out there, rather than consolidating local governments (historical transportation based reasons are no longer relevant to nearly the same degree).

Cities, of course, like Athens, Rome and the walled cities of the Middle Ages were also important birthplaces of democracy. But, back then, cities often looked more like modern nation-states with their own immigration and naturalization rules. A whole package of rights were tied into citizenship in the city (and perhaps a guild within a city as well) and moving from one city to another was not a straight forward affair. Indeed, city residents may have had less geographic mobility than farmers; peasants (particularly women) might at least hope to move within a fiefdom and maybe even to a neighboring one. Cities like Athens may have been more like a central headquarters for plantation-like large farm estate owners, than like commercial center cities. Universities, of course, were for a very long time very internally democratic compared to their neighbors.

Modern homeowner's associations, where exit is likewise costly, are also hotbeds of the best and worst of modern democracy.

People with hereditary titles had some form of democratic representation in consultative bodies to monarchs in Britain, Spain, France and Afghanistan, to name a few, long before others did. While this was partially a function of power, it was also likely a function of their intense rootedness. Exit was not an option for them.

Similarly, this may help explain why early conscription driven Armies often had elected officers, while modern volunteer Armies do not.

It is also interesting the industrial democracy in the U.S. through unions and in Japan through internal consultative mechanisms and "company unions" has coincided with lifetime employment and low job mobility. Private sector industrial unions have never been weaker in the U.S. than now. I've hypothesized more than once that this may be because would be union leaders have been co-opted, or because unions have been so successful that they passed their key benefits on to non-unionized employees via legislation. But, lateral labor mobility may also be an important factor that is at work as well. Why try to make your job better when you can leave instead?

Also, it is interesting to note what happened in the post-Civil War South when the slaves were freed. While freed slaves continued to do quite similar farming work, their mobility within the South soared and they became an almost migrant work force (something wildly at odds with the "Forty acres and a mule" dream articulated for freed slaves). The lack of a strong tie to place that arose after the Civil War is one reason, although hardly the only one, that explains the mass movement of blacks to the North to take industrial jobs in the early 20th century.

The distinction certainly doesn't solve all problems. Why were merchant and naval ships routinely autocratically governed, while pirate ships were often democratically governed? But, property, viewed as something from which exit is not quick and easy, does have a strong link to democracy.

Also, the strong link between this kind of property and democracy, as opposed to the usual sense of the word property, may shed some light on the sense of the word property that should make sense in the United States constitution, a document that sees property as closely related to political rights which was adopted when property was used to determine eligibility for political rights.

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