The Cruel Irony of Property Rights

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9 Responses

  1. Bruce Boyden says:

    “In contrast, slaves that were privately owned were regarded as an expensive investment that many owners were unwilling to wantonly harm through a false economy.”

    You’d think that, but I recall reading lots of accounts where it seemed slaves were being treated worse than farm animals, at least in terms of physical punishments. I suspect the explanation lies in a psychological need to categorize slaves as particularly reprehensible humans, so that slavery is justifiable, a need which doesn’t arise with respect to animals.

  2. Brian Duffy says:

    “You’d think that, but I recall reading lots of accounts where it seemed slaves were being treated worse than farm animals, at least in terms of physical punishments.”

    There are no clear answers… everything depends on who, where and at what time you look at. On Carribean sugar plantations, slaves died as quickly as they could be shipped in. Others were treated as well as typical farm or domestic help.

    The only thing that I find puzzling here is why anyone would think that a church would treat slaves better than anyone else… Google for the sisters of Magdelene.

    Maybe I’m a cynical jerk, but I would never want to work in any capacity for the lay prima donnas that run most churches.

  3. MT says:

    “In a cruel irony, clearer property rights in human beings in this case seems to have improved their material condition.”

    I cannot agree. Their ‘material condition’ began its degradation the moment at first force was used to dislocate any people, slaves included, from their natural habitat (community in their natural country) of origin.

  4. Kaimi says:


    The slaves-were-property-and-so-were-treated-well argument (made by Fogel, among others) has a lot of problems.

    That said, it’s certain that some of the cruelest treatment of slaves was when they weren’t viewed as particular property of an owner. The state was a notoriously bad owner of slaves seized at probate. Other big entities, like railroads, also treated slaves terribly. So your data point is not at all surprising.

  5. NBO says:

    Kaimi: Isn’t it all a matter of comparative treatment? One needn’t imagine slavery as a a happy institution — I certainly never would — in order to believe that slaves subject to commons problems were treated worse than other slaves.

  6. Off the subject somewhat, but what’s the story on that image?

  7. dfinberg says:

    Your conclusion makes no sense. There is no commons here in the classical sense. The slave was owned by one entity, the church, and all of their value and output belonged to the church. You could try and make some principal/agent argument here, but that’s not what you claimed.

  8. NBO says:

    Corporations necessarily fragment property rights among the constituent members of the corporation. To say that there is no commons problem with a corporation because the corporation owns a piece of property is to be seduced by the illusion of legal language into assuming that a corporation can be treated as a person. Furthermore, when we are talking about early corporations were are talking about entities with a quasi-public character, much closer to a government agency than a private company. For example, a church corporation did not have any share holders for whom the vestry acted as agents. The members of the congregation, for example, did not own the church nor were they entitled to profits from church property.

    Obviously, this is not a classic commons problem like a communal field, but it is far closer to that than to something like the agency problems of a modern publically traded corporation.

  9. joj shomo says:

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