The Origins of Political and Property Rights in Bronze Age Mesopotamia

by Giacomo Benati, Carmine Guerriero, Federico Zaina (University of Bologna)

The full paper from this blog is available here

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Mesopotamian map of canals. Available at <http://factsanddetails.com/world/cat56/sub363/item1513.html&gt;

Despite the overwhelming empirical evidence documenting the relevance of inclusive political institutions and strong property rights, we still lack a unified framework identifying their determinants and their interaction. We develop a model to address this deficiency, and we test its implications on a novel data on Greater Mesopotamia during the Bronze Ages.

This region developed the first recorded forms of stable state institutions, which can be credibly linked to geography. Worsening  climatic conditions between the end of the Uruk period (3300-3100 BC) and the beginning of the Jemdet Nasr and Early Dynastic periods (3100-2550 BC) reduced farming returns and  forced the religious elites to share power previously acquired from the landholding households, with rising military elites. This transformation led to the peasants engaging in leasing, renting and tenure-for-service contracts requiring rents and corvèe, such as participation in infrastructure projects and a conscripted army. Being an empowerment mechanism, the latter was the citizens’ preferred public good. Second, the Pre-Sargonic period (2550-2350 BC) witnessed a milder climate, which curbed the temple and palatial elites’ need to share their policy-making power. Finally, a period of harsher climate, and the consequent rise of long-distance trade as an alternative activity, allowed the town elites to establish themselves as the third decision-maker during the Mesopotamian empires period (2350-1750 BC). Reforms towards more inclusive political institutions were accompanied by a shift towards stronger farmers’ rights on land and a larger provision of public goods, especially those most valued by the citizens, i.e., conscripted army.

To elucidate the incentives behind these stylized facts, we consider the interaction between a land-owning elite and citizens able to deliver a valuable harvest if the imperfectly observable farming conditions were favorable. To incentivize investment, the elite cannot commit to direct transfers, but can lean on two other instruments: establishing a more inclusive political process, which allows citizens to select tax rates and organize public good provision, and/or punishing citizens for suspected shirking by restricting their private rights.  This ‘stick’ is costly for the elite. When the expected harvest value is barely greater than the investment cost, citizens cooperate only under full property rights and more inclusive political institutions, allowing them to fully tax the output. When the investment return is intermediate, the elite keeps control over fiscal policies and can implement partial taxation. When, finally, the investment return is large, the elite can also weaken the protection of private rights. Yet, embracing the stick is optimal only if production is sufficiently transparent, and, thus, punishment effectively disciplines a shirking citizen. Our model has three implications. First, the inclusiveness of political institutions declines with expected farming returns and is unrelated to the opaqueness of farming. Second, the strength of property rights diminishes with the expected harvest return and is positively related to the opaqueness of farming. Finally, citizens’ expected utility from public good provision increases with the strength of political and property rights.

To evaluate these predictions, we study 44 major Mesopotamian polities observed between 3050 and 1750 BC. To proxy the expected farming return, we combine information on the growing season temperature, averaged—as any other non-institutional variable—over the previous half-century and land suitability for wheat, barley and olive breeding (Figure 1). This measure is strongly correlated with contemporaneous barley yields in l/ha. Turning to the opaqueness in the farming process, we consider the exogenous spread of viticulture through inter-palatial trade. Because of its diplomatic and ritual roles, wine represented one of the exports most valued by the ruling elites. Regarding common interest goods, we gather information on the number of public and ritual buildings and the existence of a conscripted army. To measure the strength of political and property rights, we construct a five-point score rising with the division of decision-making power and a six-point index increasing when land exploitation by the elite was indirect rather than direct and/or farmers’ rights were enforced de jure rather than de facto. These two variables build on the events in a 40-year window around each time period.

Conditional on polity and half-century fixed effects, our OLS estimates imply that the strength of political and property rights is significantly and inversely related to the expected farming return, whereas only the protection of private property is significantly and positively driven by the opaqueness of farming. Finally, public good provision is unrelated to property rights protection but significantly and positively linked to the inclusiveness of the political process, and more so when the public good was the setup of a conscripted army.

These results open three crucial avenues for further research. First, did reforms towards stronger political and property rights foster, thanks to the larger provision of public goods, economic development (Guerriero and Righi, 2019)? Second, did the most politically developed polities obstruct the market integration of the Mesopotamia empires, pushing the rulers to impose a complex bureaucracy on all of them and extractive policies on the less militarily relevant ones (de Oliveira and Guerriero, 2018; Guerriero, 2019a)? Finally, did reforms towards a more inclusive political process foster the centralization of the legal order, i.e., reforms towards statutory law, bright-line procedural rules and a strong protection of the potential buyers’ reliance on their contracts (Guerriero 2016; 2019b)?

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Figure 1: Political and Property Rights, Public Good Provision and Farming Return.        Source: as per published paper

 

References

de Oliveira, Guilherme, and Carmine Guerriero. 2018. “Extractive States: The Case of the Italian Unification.” International Review of Law and Economics, 56: 142-159.

Guerriero, Carmine. 2016. “Endogenous Legal Traditions.” International Review of Law and Economics, 46: 49-69.

Guerriero, Carmine. 2019a. “Endogenous Institutions and Economic Outcomes.” Forthcoming, Economica.

Guerriero, Carmine. 2019b. “Property Rights, Transaction Costs, and the Limits of the Market.” Unpublished.

Guerriero, Carmine, and Laura Righi. 2019. “The Origins of the State’s Fiscal Capacity: Culture, Democracy, and Warfare.” Unpublished.

North, Douglass C., and Barry R. Weingast. 1989. “Constitutions and Commitment: The Evolution of Institutions Governing Public Choice in Seventeenth-Century England.” Journal of Economic History, 49: 803-832.

 

To contact the authors

Giacomo Benati (giacomo.benati2@unibo.it)

Carmine Guerriero (c.guerriero@unibo.it)

Federico Zaina (Federico.zaina@unibo.it)

EHS 2018 special: Ownership and control of land by women in nineteenth-century England

by Janet Casson (independent scholar)

 

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A 19th Century English countryside landscape, oil on canvas, anonymous.

The HS2 train route between London and Birmingham has been modified in response to outrage from people concerned about the impact on their property. This is nothing new. Over 150 years ago, railways cut through the English countryside to provide new infrastructure for an expanding economy. Railway surveyors laying out a route made detailed maps and carefully recorded the usage and ownership of every affected property in books of reference.

The complexity of the laws governing the rights of women has meant that women’s land ownership in the nineteenth century has rarely been investigated. Indeed, it was widely believed that the law deterred women’s ownership of land.

These railway books of reference provide a unique insight into this rarely investigated topic and provide an insight into women’s control of land. Statistical analysis of the information reveals that women owned, either singly or jointly, about 12% of that land.

Detailed profiles of 348 women and their property give an insight not only into the ownership but also the control of land. They reveal if a woman shared ownership and if so, with whom; a woman owning alone had a higher degree of control than a woman owing with others. They indicate the amount of land, the woman’s wealth and her potential influence over other people. If she had a multi-plot portfolio, its geographical dispersal indicates whether her influence was local, regional or even national.

Women who owned with men were regarded as having little control over land. Before the 1882 Married Women’s Property Act, wives were constrained by common law: they could own real property, but lost independent control of its management and the use of any rents or profits unless they had a settlement or trust. Women who owned with an institution had least control given that institutions had statutory powers and often protracted decision-making.

Many women held their property as sole owners (average 35.5%) and were confident to own and control large portfolios. Where women shared ownership, it was usually with men (average 42.0%) rather than exclusively with other women.

There was a trade-off between exercising strong control over a few properties that could be self-managed or weaker control over more properties where co-owners shared the administration. Similarly, a trade-off existed between owning many local properties or fewer widely dispersed properties where, to maximise the economic return on the plots, co-owners were needed for their local knowledge.

The size of property portfolios varied across regions. They were smallest in London, possibly reflecting the high property prices and the significant number of single women living in the suburbs; and largest in Durham where several women owned large national portfolios.

An average of 24% of plots was held by single-plot-owing women. But the typical portfolio comprised 2-5 plots (37.6%). Larger portfolios of 10 or more were also fairly common (24.1%). Large portfolios were often geographically dispersed – across a county, region or nationally.

The picture that emerges from this analysis is that many women as sole owners enjoyed considerable autonomy in the control of their portfolios. Where they relied on others, they typically relied on men.

But as the diversity of their portfolios increased, women did not increase their dependence on men but chose to retain their autonomy instead. Women it appears, valued their autonomy, and did their best to maintain and protect it