Extremely interesting book called Owning the Earth: The Transforming History of Land Ownership by Andro Linklater. Intriguingly, it is a book about progress that doesn't exactly know it's about progress. What was interesting is how the book argues, convincingly, that property ownership is an under-appreciated driver of progress.

This book attempts to answer two interesting questions: (1) what is the history of land ownership, and why is it a big enough deal that we need to consider its history at all; and (2) what is the effect of land ownership, especially by looking at comparative differences between societies that have had different ownership rules?

The most intriguing implication of the book is that land ownership is the reason that the Industrial Revolution started in the UK and not elsewhere, particularly France (where the term "Industrial Revolution" originates!) By reading primary sources, Linklater shows that land ownership is at the root of a number of important moments that led to advances in society, including Cromwell's Revolution, the Magna Carta, and the Puritan escape to America. His argument is that the British approach to land ownership created an interest in property and what the members of this group would call "progress" because it was the only way for people to materialize the efforts of their labor, thus creating an interest in rights and the technologies needed to improve, say, the yields of their crops. The most interesting tidbit that probably incentivized investment is changing the rules for debt. It used to be that if you got the equivalent of a mortgage on your property, the creditor would foreclose on the entire property regardless of the remaining value in the property. Thus "equity" (so named because this was viewed as unfair by property owners) was born, and it forms the basis of many things we view as important for progress today, like the invention of the joint-stock corporation. Stylistically, I enjoy books that explain details like these that give context for why a decision was important at the time.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the historical comparisons to other societies. The Bible, House of Romanov, France, Imperial China, Native Americans, and many others had different rules for land ownership, including who could own what, which resulted in differing societal incentives. 18-19th century Russia, for example, did not allow for direct land ownership, which meant that class was determined by the number of "souls" under one's command. Similarly, Biblical Israel had a "jubilee," which required the return of all land every 49 years along with the forgiveness of all debt, which created problems in incentivizing long-term investment (and also led to flexibility in ignoring the jubilee). Linklater also tackles important historical thinkers, like Marx, and shows where they were lead astray (in Marx's case, his descriptions of the history of property were wrong, principally because he was overly-reliant on one particular historian).

When it comes to helping spark progress, one of the key takeaways of the book is the idea that what matters is not the existence of property owners but having a class of property owners. What really moved the needle was having a significant (but by no means majority or even plurality) group of people who depended on landownership for their livelihoods, sense of self, and independence. Because this gave them the prospect of progress, not just subsistence, it created an allegiance so strong it resulted in revolutions over and over again. So even though landowners were missing many rights at the beginning, creating that powerful class eventually resulted in the power to spark further progress. This also resulted in problems too because landowners did not think that non-landowners should have the same rights or ability to vote because their view was that serfs did not have the same investment in the future of society, a common (and surprisingly dominant) theme in civil progress.

My main critique of the book is that there is not as much discussion as to why landownership happened when it did, or why societies made different choices. One could imagine, for example, that in Mediterranean environments there were different crop requirements that resulted in different landownership policies than, say, Continental Europe, or that there was a particularly oppressive leader who caused a revolt in a particular country. Similarly, technological change is presumably part of the story in some of these cases, and I didn't see much discussion of it.

Overall, I recommend the book. It’s interesting and an unusual topic, it covers many historical periods and parts of the world, and the writing is tight yet entertaining. 


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Good review and good rec - just bought the book and am enjoying it so far. Thanks!