Bryan Caplan  

Tolstoy, the Clarkian

PRINT
More on IQ... Comparative Health Care...

Greg Clark thinks labor quality is vital for economic growth. I'm skeptical - it's easy to believe that American labor is twice as productive as Somalian labor, but not 70 times. Still, while re-reading Anna Karenina, I couldn't help but notice that Tolstoy is very Clarkian.

In the story, Levin, the rural nobleman, has big plans for modernizing his farm. Unfortunately, his undisciplined workforce gets in the way. A choice passage:

Levin gave orders for a trough to be brought out and hay to be put in the racks. But it appeared that, since the paddock had not been used during the winter, the racks made in the autumn were broken. He sent for the carpenter, who, according to his orders, ought to have been at work at the threshing machine. But it appeared that the carpenter was repairing the harrows, which ought to have been repaired before Lent. This was very annoying to Levin. It was annoying to come upon that everlasting slovenliness in the farmwork against which he had been striving with all his might for so many years. The racks, as he ascertained, being not wanted in winter, had been carried to the cart horses' stable, and there broken, as they were of light construction, only meant for foddering calves. Moreover, it was apparent also that the harrows and all the agricultural implements, which he had directed to be looked over and repaired in the winter, for which very purpose he had hired three carpenters, had not been put into repair, and the harrows were being repaired when they ought to have been harrowing the field. Levin sent for his bailiff, but immediately went off himself to look for him. The bailiff, beaming all over, like everything that day, in a sheepskin bordered with astrakhan, came out of the barn, twisting a bit of straw in his hands.

`Why isn't the carpenter at the threshing machine?'

`Oh, I meant to tell you yesterday, the harrows want repairing. Here it's time they got to work in the fields.'

`But what were they doing in the winter, then?'

`But what did you want the carpenter for?'

`Where are the racks for the calves' paddock?'

`I ordered them to be got ready. What would you have with those people!' said the bailiff, with a wave of his hand.

`It's not those people but this bailiff!' said Levin, getting angry. `Why, what do I keep you for?' he cried. But, bethinking himself that this would not help matters, he stopped short in the middle of a sentence, and merely sighed.

If you think I'm reading too much into this, Tolstoy actually makes it explicit:
In addition to his farming, which called for special attention in spring, in addition to reading Levin had begun that winter a work on agriculture, the plan of which turned on taking into account the character of the laborer on the land as one of the unalterable data of the question, like the climate and the soil, and consequently deducing all the principles of scientific culture, not simply from the data of soil and climate, but from the data of soil, climate and a certain unalterable character of the laborer.
I'm trying to remember if Tolstoy ever blames economic backwardness on bad policies. Anyone?


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (11 to date)
Nicholas Fugett writes:

Bryan, Tolstoy did to a larget extent blame economic backwardness on bad economic policy. He was very vocal about his support for Georgism (high taxation of land value, and taxation only of that) and believed Russia's refusal to switch to it was a cause of economic depression. For one of many expositions of this, see:

http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G1-20381878.html

Steve Sailer writes:

I've never seen a good refutation of Henry George's basic idea that getting rich off land ownership is different from, say, getting rich off factory ownership in terms of value contributed to the whole economy. I've often seen it assumed that somebody had conclusively refuted George, but I've never seen the refutation itself.

Matt writes:

The key word here is nobleman, not labor. As workmen became smarter, noblemen seemed to go away, often with violence.

Steve Sailer writes:

Most observers of Russia felt the same way about Russian laborers. Stalin resolved to terrorize the workers into productivity, but started out by shooting or starving or working to death the most productive peasants in the Ukraine, with the long term effects on the productivity of the Ukraine that you'd expect.

Ian writes:

I've never seen a good refutation of Henry George's basic idea that getting rich off land ownership is different from, say, getting rich off factory ownership in terms of value contributed to the whole economy.

Talk to some of the white farmers of Zimbabwe. They might be able to tell you.

Hi, Steve.

I don't think the idea that land ownership differs from ownership of other factors of production dates from Henry George. What George did explore was whether alternative institutions such as government land ownership (of all land) might increase growth. He did his thinking and writing before the days of the marginal revolution in economics, and it's easy to refute his particular arguments because he confuses marginals and averages. Even if one restates his arguments in modern economic terms, the greatest refutation is the historical record--countries where the government owns all the land have not exactly been successful at economic growth! George's own followers' communally-owned land areas also didn't succeed.

A few years ago, shortly after I read his Progress and Poverty I wrote a short summary explanation of George's main argument here on EconLog.

A fun Henry George fact, by the way, is that the PBS show History Detectives uncovered that his followers' collectives were behind the game "Monopoly."

Rimfax writes:

Ha! A friend of mine is going through this, but not in Somalia. He just moved to Huntsville, Alabama. He's jokingly afraid that his wife is going to go on a rampage with the incompetence and reticence of the local civil servants as compared to previous experiences in Colorado and Virginia. It seems that although Huntsville is an intellectual oasis of sorts, it is still in Alabama.

Paul Zrimsek writes:

I like to think of this post as a followup to "Online Seminar", with Dani Rodrik as the scientific farmer and the rest of us as the refractory peasants.

John Thacker writes:

I've never seen a good refutation of Henry George's basic idea that getting rich off land ownership is different from, say, getting rich off factory ownership in terms of value contributed to the whole economy. I've often seen it assumed that somebody had conclusively refuted George, but I've never seen the refutation itself.

Oh, the basic idea is quite correct, but with an annoying caveat that makes it difficult to measure and implement. Taxation on the unimproved value of land is quite efficient because of its avoidance of deadweight loss, and taxing consumers more or less when things outside their effort affect the value of their land. It also increases the incentives to use land most productively in urban areas. (The downside for some is that it forces people to sell when their preferred use for the land is no longer the most efficient-- such as single family homes in urban areas that could support higher density condo buildings. However, that gain in efficiency is a big point of the tax, and at least the landowner gets the benefit of the higher sale prices rather than bribed zoning boards and politicians using eminent domain.)

The problem, as the other commenter brings up with the discussion of Zimbabwe, is that owners often do make improvements to land. It can be difficult to measure the proper value, and a real estate tax that taxes the improvements as well has the inefficiencies and discouragement of progress of other taxes.

John Thacker writes:

There is always argument over how much of the value is the inherent unimproved land value, and how much is improvements. In the case of farmers, for example, proper agricultural techniques can greatly increase the value of the land.

Punditus Maximus writes:

Rimfax -- I often joke that the reason Red Staters hate government so much is that their experience is generally with Red State government.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top