Plato's Laws V, 5: Divisions of Land Part Two

Again, today I'm handling only a few paragraphs of this section, because there's a lot buried in them. The rest of this book turns on the division of land, and tomorrow or thereabouts I'll get to the rest of it. For the moment, though, I want to examine just the introduction to the problem.

"Ath. Another piece of good fortune must not be forgotten, which, as we were saying, the Heraclid colony had, and which is also ours-that we have escaped division of land and the abolition of debts; for these are always a source of dangerous contention, and a city which is driven by necessity to legislate upon such matters can neither allow the old ways to continue, nor yet venture to alter them. We must have recourse to prayers, so to speak, and hope that a slight change may be cautiously effected in a length of time. And such a change can be accomplished by those who have abundance of land, and having also many debtors, are willing, in a kindly spirit, to share with those who are in want, sometimes remitting and sometimes giving, holding fast in a path of moderation, and deeming poverty to be the increase of a man's desires and not the diminution of his property. For this is the great beginning of salvation to a state, and upon this lasting basis may be erected afterwards whatever political order is suitable under the circumstances; but if the change be based upon an unsound principle, the future administration of the country will be full of difficulties. That is a danger which, as I am saying, is escaped by us, and yet we had better say how, if we had not escaped, we might have escaped; and we may venture now to assert that no other way of escape, whether narrow or broad, can be devised but freedom from avarice and a sense of justice-upon this rock our city shall be built; for there ought to be no disputes among citizens about property. If there are quarrels of long standing among them, no legislator of any degree of sense will proceed a step in the arrangement of the state until they are settled. But that they to whom God has given, as he has to us, to be the founders of a new state as yet free from enmity-that they should create themselves enmities by their mode of distributing lands and houses, would be superhuman folly and wickedness."

So here the Athenian begins by nothing something mentioned in an earlier book, i.e., that the colony is lucky because it doesn't have pre-existing distributions of land or debt to worry about. It can divide land anew without having to tread among the pre-existing jealousies and resentments of the people.

These very issues are problems for us, though. As Congress proposes new debts or new divisions, or the elimination of whole classes of debt (like student loans), it aggravates the existing divisions in society. 

This can be ok, Plato suggests, if those who have are generous about giving things up, and those who have not are not greedy. Well, many things could be ok if human nature was better than it is; but both of these are relative concepts. Who is going to say that you have been generous enough, or that the poor who want this or that concession are being too greedy? Is waiving medical debt ok, but not student loans? Both, but not mortgage payments? 

In Aristotle's Politics, this very aspect of government by the many turns out to be the failing point of many constitutions. In aristocracies, the rich are powerful enough to prevent any concessions to the poor -- until the poor revolt. In democracies, the poor are powerful enough to vote to seize whatever they want from the rich -- until the rich hire mercenaries and overthrow the state, establishing themselves as its overlords. In both cases, given Aristotle's concept that there is a healthy form and an unhealthy form of every government, the movement is in the direction of a corrupted form.

Still, say you could do it. Conceptually, how would you do it? What would make sense to me is a kind of corporate form of redistribution: i.e., take land away from those who have not managed to use it productively, and assign it to those with smaller estates who seem to have developed good systems of management and fair conditions for their workers. Just as you might demote an executive, or promote one who seems to be doing well, you might redistribute land and resources in this way. 

You could even then ease the hard feelings from the losers by compensating them: perhaps by disguising the demotion as a "promotion to a distinguished emeritus position" with less practical power and control, but a comfortable sinecure. This kind of fine adjustment might work for the sort of system Plato is envisioning, one with a king (the analog to the CEO of a corporation) and a legislator empowered to introduce new rules. 

That is not what Plato has in mind. What Plato has in mind is mathematical and geometric. 

Ath. "How then can we rightly order the distribution of the land? In the first place, the number of the citizens has to be determined, and also the number and size of the divisions into which they will have to be formed; and the land and the houses will then have to be apportioned by us as fairly as we can. The number of citizens can only be estimated satisfactorily in relation to the territory and the neighbouring states. The territory must be sufficient to maintain a certain number of inhabitants in a moderate way of life-more than this is not required; and the number of citizens should be sufficient to defend themselves against the injustice of their neighbours, and also to give them the power of rendering efficient aid to their neighbours when they are wronged. After having taken a survey of theirs and their neighbours' territory, we will determine the limits of them in fact as well as in theory. And now, let us proceed to legislate with a view to perfecting the form and outline of our state. The number of our citizens shall be 5040-this will be a convenient number; and these shall be owners of the land and protectors of the allotment. The houses and the land will be divided in the same way, so that every man may correspond to a lot. Let the whole number be first divided into two parts, and then into three; and the number is further capable of being divided into four or five parts, or any number of parts up to ten. Every legislator ought to know so much arithmetic as to be able to tell what number is most likely to be useful to all cities; and we are going to take that number which contains the greatest and most regular and unbroken series of divisions. The whole of number has every possible division, and the number 5040 can be divided by exactly fifty-nine divisors, and ten of these proceed without interval from one to ten: this will furnish numbers for war and peace, and for all contracts and dealings, including taxes and divisions of the land. These properties of number should be ascertained at leisure by those who are bound by law to know them; for they are true, and should be proclaimed at the foundation of the city, with a view to use. 

"Whether the legislator is establishing a new state or restoring an old and decayed one, in respect of Gods and temples-the temples which are to be built in each city, and the Gods or demi-gods after whom they are to be called-if he be a man of sense, he will make no change in anything which the oracle of Delphi, or Dodona, or the God Ammon, or any ancient tradition has sanctioned in whatever manner, whether by apparitions or reputed inspiration of Heaven, in obedience to which mankind have established sacrifices in connection with mystic rites, either originating on the spot, or derived from Tyrrhenia or Cyprus or some other place, and on the strength of which traditions they have consecrated oracles and images, and altars and temples, and portioned out a sacred domain for each of them. The least part of all these ought not to be disturbed by the legislator; but he should assign to the several districts some God, or demi-god, or hero, and, in the distribution of the soil, should give to these first their chosen domain and all things fitting, that the inhabitants of the several districts may meet at fixed times, and that they may readily supply their various wants, and entertain one another with sacrifices, and become friends and acquaintances; for there is no greater good in a state than that the citizens should be known to one another. When not light but darkness and ignorance of each other's characters prevails among them, no one will receive the honour of which he is deserving, or the power or the justice to which he is fairly entitled: wherefore, in every state, above all things, every man should take heed that he have no deceit in him, but that he be always true and simple; and that no deceitful person take any advantage of him."

So Plato is aiming at something akin to a true mathematical equality among the households. Everyone should receive as close to a perfectly equal distribution as everyone else, using 5,040 as the basis to ensure that as many perfectly equal distributions as possible are available. He also wants to establish a distribution that is as close as possible to equidistant from the capitol, ensuring equal access. He is motivated by the beauty of math here as he was in music.

Now it happens that I can think of an occasion when something like this was done in reality, and it is a thing I have occasionally praised here. Georgia was set up like this, following James Jackson's overturning of the Yazoo Land Scandal. Georgia was divided into parcels and distributed by lottery; county seats were set up no more than 24 miles from the county border so that everyone who lived in the county could travel to town, do their necessary business at the county seat, and get back in one day.

It worked well for a while, but there are two problems that the Georgian experience illuminates. The first one is that not all land is equally valuable. One of the lottery winners won Stone Mountain, for example. If you had the capitol and resources to set up a quarry, that might have been valuable; as he was a small farmer, it was useless to him. So at once you're going to need to permit trades of these mathematically equal divisions, and some of them are going to require concentration of resources to work effectively. That means inequality.

The other problem is that economics will out. Georgia's lottery system survived hardly any time because it wasn't capable of competing with the slave-based plantation system. That was a much worse system morally, but it produced titanic wealth by comparison. Plato would want the ideal government he hopes to erect to prevent a morally worse system from replacing his division of equality, but practically that is not to be expected. Wealth corrupts politics, so an immoral system that is productive of gigantic wealth will win over a morally better system that does not. Arguably we are witnessing that happening now, with China's openly genocidal tyranny winning out over the law-and-freedom-based American system by a simple practice of mass bribery of international elites. 

Still, there is much to say that is positive about having made the attempt; it has a lot to praise in theory, and even practically for the short while until competition swept it away. 


J Melcher said...

I should look this up, but I bet you know off the top of your head...

Was Plato discussing his land ownership schemes before or after the "publication" of Leviticus, specifically chapter 25?

Grim said...

So, there are two very different ways of dating Leviticus, one of which makes it about a thousand years older than the other. If you follow the system of dating from the Biblical creation story, Leviticus is very much older than Plato. If you follow secular scholars, it’s closer; Leviticus might predate him by a hundred years of so, or have come after his lifetime by around the same amount.

J Melcher said...

Thanks for the dating info.

(There is no doubt a better way to phrase that...)

I did not and do not mean to insist on any connection; other than that the question/problem is ancient; "bankruptcy" seems to be built into the concept as necessary.

Grim said...

Yeah, it’s sort of like the earlier issue with how old civilization is. We tend to think of it as a little older than Plato; Plato thought of it as immeasurably old already. Here too he thinks of the need to void debts or reset property distribution as a cyclical need that comes up just now and then. It’s a particularly thorny issue that is very hard to do well, but it’s definitely a known issue for civilizations.

Christopher B said...

I'd suggest that the Township-Range survey of the Old Northwest and Upper Midwest, combined with the Homestead Act, provided something pretty close to what Plato is describing as well. Even the railroads got land grants on a somewhat random basis (every x number of sections for a couple miles either side of the line). Every man started out with a very similar 160 acre parcel, and then did what they could with it.

Grim said...

That's a good example, just one I'm not familiar enough with to discuss. I appreciate your bringing it up, though, as it is another good thing to look at while considering Plato's discussion.

Christopher B said...

I grew up in north Iowa, which is getting to the edge of the area where the 160 acre parcel was viable, and there's a book called 'Measuring America' by Andro Linklater that discusses how this system shaped our expansion, at least east of the Missouri and north of the Ohio.

The significant difference to Plato is that the whole system was set up to enable the sale of land, not prevent it, to finance the U.S. government and pay off the debts from the Revolutionary War and later the Civil War, and to provide a way to encourage the creation of transportation infrastructure and settlement through unclaimed areas. The Homestead Act modified that a bit by allowing men to claim land held by the government for a filing fee and living on it for five years. There were some of the same problems that you noted with the Georgia experience. Not all the land was equally viable for farming, and some wasn't really workable, such as the area I grew up in, until people organized drainage projects in the early 20th century. It did, however, mean that anybody who could scrape together the cash could become a landowner, and it avoided the creation of a landed gentry that derived its income and influence from collecting rents.

I think I remarked on your post about Georgia counties that Iowa had a similar experience. The majority of Iowa counties were deliberately aligned with Township-Range survey and sized to allow travel by horse to and from the county seat in one day. There are a few oddities on the Iowa 'coasts' and I grew up in Kossuth County which is the double-sized one up against the Minnesota border. The north half of Kossuth was intended to be organized as the 100th county and named Buffalo but was considered unviable due to the drainage issues making the land there unworkable. In the end we wound up being one of the richest counties in the state.

If you read the Little House on the Prairie books you get a sense of why the project faltered once you get west of the Missouri River. Except for river valleys, or in very favorable years like some in the late 19th century, the 160 acre parcel isn't sufficient to sustain a single family even at a bare subsistence level. Add in the land grabs (IIRC Pa Ingalls got caught in one in Oklahoma which caused their move back to Minnesota) and other shenanigans such as mineral and water right claims, and you have an economic situation similar to the plantations where smallholders just can't compete with investors backed by existing capital.

Christopher B said...

Township-Range is how you get property descriptions like 'the Southeast quarter of the Southwest quarter of section 3, Township 97 North, Range 27 West of the Fifth Principal Meridian (Buffalo), in Kossuth County, Iowa', in contrast to a metes-and-bounds 'one hundred feet north of *landmark*, thence east two hundred feet to *landmark*, etc' or a surveyed lot in a town.

J Melcher said...

The discussion is all balled up with human estimation of "values". Wealth or utility or capital or value or worth ... Subtle distinctions in semantic usage, but all related to the general idea that one thing might be traded for another, under the right circumstances.

Equal areas - tracts - of land are often UN-equal in value for any number of reasons. One has better soil. One is closer to the capitol, or close to the road. One has useful ore near the surface. One has a creek running through it. One is on a defensible hill, or island. One is "proven" and another remains a speculative case.

The land quarried for stone to build the roads or capitol building is more valuable, early, and less so later when the construction market slows and the land in now a damp pit. The defensible site is attractive when renegades and outlaws run wild, and less so as civilization advances.

I wonder how well ANY general concept will map onto the accumulation of trades and individual assessments that determine the value of the entire culture.