Premise: A city-state existing in a 'Dark Age' following the collapse of an empire. Trade is minimal due to lack of trust and banditry. The city is led by a democratically elected Council and there is no established ruling class. Based on technology equal to Classical Antiquity.

Question: How would a city such as this ensure its farmland is not concentrated in the hands of the wealthy? Due to its precarious situation, it obviously doesn't want a few individuals gaining too much control over such a vital resource.

One idea I had was simply to have the state own the farms and land, to be run and maintained by taxation. This seemed perhaps too 'Communist', as the society is supposed to be based on democratic, liberal values, and I'm not sure if such a society could afford such a system.

Another idea was to limit the amount of farmland an individual or family could own, but this was problematic because nothing would stop individuals banding together to create a monopoly.

Any suggestions are very much appreciated. Thanks!

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    Note that the first US settlers tried to have the farms owned by the state--not enough people planted because they all planned on just eating what everyone else planted; they had to split it up into farms per person to get enough planted, because people wouldn't starve themselves. – Hosch250 Oct 18 at 18:23
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    In that day-and-age land was wealth. – Nex Terren Oct 18 at 18:26
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    Who is it that doesn't want the land in the hands of the wealthy? The wealthy are usually the "democratically elected council" (meaning they're the ones making the laws). It's pretty much impossible to solve the "money talks" problem (you know... "everybody has a price..."). France came close using a Guillotine. – JBH Oct 18 at 18:32
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    By periodically banding together and killing their oppressors. That's how it's usually done. – Richard Oct 18 at 23:01
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    A sickle, a hammer and the lyrics to Poliushko Polye come to mind. – Renan Oct 18 at 23:47

12 Answers 12

Use inheritance laws to keep dividing up property

This is actually discussed by Adam Smith in his famous treatise on the Wealth of Nations. I don't remember what his ultimate verdict was, but he was comparing the inheritance laws of Europe with those of America. In Europe, typically the first-born son inherited the family estate. This had the effect that family estates lasted for a very long time, and tended to grow bigger rather than smaller. It also shuts out new buyers; even if you had the money, there simply wasn't that much land up for sale.

In America and maybe some other locations, inheritances were split equally between all heirs. This creates the effect over time that land holdings are broken up and re-aggregated over time as smaller pieces may be sold by heirs, or bought by neighbors. No one family could simply sit on its land forever. Fortunately, the West offered plenty of new land for settlement.

Three policies to accomplish your goal

For your purposes, you could build a world with inheritance laws that achieve the effect you want. First, a heavy inheritance tax (death tax) could make it difficult for heirs to actually keep their parents' property -- more difficult the larger the property. Your government might even claim its share in the form of land rather than cash, and auction off the land so the heirs would have to compete with other bidders for it. This both reduces the size of family estates and ensures a regular supply of land for sale to new buyers.

Second, impose an inheritance law such that, regardless of the wishes of the deceased, each heir receives an equal share of what's left after taxes. The deceased's last will would be seen as more of a request or suggestion, rather than being legally binding on the heirs. This would be more effective if you can establish that, culturally, families in this kingdom are rather large. When the resulting shares are too small to live on, some heirs will sell their shares to other heirs or to neighbors and move elsewhere or find a way to earn a living without land. Property holdings should grow and shrink fairly dynamically across the generations. My neighbor might buy some of my late father's land from one of my siblings, and I might eventually buy it back from one of his children.

Third, you might establish some incentives to use the land rather than keeping it idle. On the "carrot" side, you might create a Homestead Act that offers free land to citizens who will live on it and establish a farm or business. On the "stick" side, you might levy a property tax that applies only to land that is not put to productive use, encouraging large landowners to sell off their excess land. The effects of these incentives should be to encourage lots of people to own small homesteads rather than a few people holding on to large estates.

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    and auction off the land so the heirs would have to compete with other bidders for it this seems exactly the opposite of ensuring farmland is not owned by the wealthy. – Hankrecords Oct 19 at 7:44
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    In Europe, typically the first-born son inherited the family estate. Say that to Charlemagne – Nico Oct 19 at 8:56
  • the down side of split inheritance is small farmers are often forced to sell their land because they end up with plots of land too small to live off of. this can actually concentrate land in the hands of the wealthy, who can afford to buy land, and often have fewer kids too boot. – John Oct 19 at 16:49
  • The idea isn't to make it illegal to get rich; it's to make it difficult to hold on to it for multiple generations. The whole "four generations from rags to rags" cliche. We like the idea of self-made millionaires, and may aspire to be among them, but we dislike the useless foppish heirs of dynastic families. – Joe Oct 19 at 18:56

It sounds like you want some sort of middle ground where private land ownership is maintained, but where no party owns too much of it.

You can use a couple of different methods to achieve this.

1) Some sort of land tax levied on inactive land, land leased to others, or parcels above a certain size. Set at a high enough level, there would be no incentive for owners to accumulate land beyond the thresholds set in the law. Most large land owners in antiquity and the Middle Ages didn't work the land directly; they were landlords. Make being a landlord not be profitable, and you won't have any landlords. The tax on large parcels will take care of latifundia-type situations.

2) Some sort of Byzantine land ownership law, where abandoning land doesn't relieve you of the obligation to pay tax on it. One reason that small property ownership decayed during the late Roman Empire and early Dark Ages was because the peasantry simply abandoned the land to escape taxation. The Byzantine Empire observed what was happening and took steps to react to it - among those steps was changing the law related to abandoned property, so that the peasants couldn't just run. If you keep small owners on their land, there is less opportunity for land to revert to waste and "accidentally" end up as part of the local aristocrat's parcel.

  • I'm imagining a rolling land reform where "abandoned" land is regularly confiscated and handed out to get poor people out of the city/cities. – HAEM Oct 19 at 10:05

Long term you can't, due to Iron law of oligarchy. Complex organizations require specialization and bureaucracy. Very soon your democratic council will be captured by special interests and whatever laws you've had before would be gone.

If the land is the most valuable resource it would be soon concentrated.

Say you have a law that limits each family to forty acres. City council is made of part time farmers elected democratically, while local militia protects from bandits. However Hardworking Harry, Industrious Ian & Diligent David get more crop yield then Lazy Larry, Drunkard Drake & Trubadour Tim. So they make am informal deal with them, they could work their land in exchange for part of a crop while the latter could do slacking, drinking & singing. The best farmers buy 40 acres for every child, while the worst or unlucky ones have to sell their land.

In a few generations nearly all the fertile land is owned by families with surname Harry, Ian & David. Since the land is major source of wealth they could pressure landless peasants to vote in council members that would support laws that fit the ruling three families. Like for example removing the outdated law of 40 acres per family, which prevents farmers using modern technologies such as quad oxen pulled plough with high carbon still implements which will enable us to plant new crops. The city council and militia starts to professionalize not to mention emerging bureaucracy.

Few more generations and the most fertile land is concentrated into few hands. Most people work as hired hands, sharecroppers, or eke a living as craftsman or soldiers. The city council is completely chosen by the large landowners, and elections are pro-forma only. Pervasive bureaucracy ensures that laws are fallowed while the professional soldiers enforce them.

Welcome to feudalism. Without trade and free cities to challenge the landlords you can forget about democracy.

There's a contradiction in what you're asking for in that you're asking for the wealthy and powerful of society to act against their own best interests.

Regardless of the democratic nature of your setting, the people who have the spare time to go into politics are the wealthy, and in a situation like this, the wealthy are the large landowners.

If this was a village then holding the land in common and strip farming may be the way to go. Strip farming common land is totally socialist, but also liberal to a fault, everyone is given enough land but is then ultimately responsible for producing enough food for their own survival. However, cities need farming on a larger scale than the mere subsistence levels of strip farming. To maintain cities you need large landowners, people with enough to gain by overproducing food that the city can be fed on their surplus.

You want people to make money, you want people to overproduce food to feed the city. You don't want people to have too much land.

This means that you want to tax the land itself, not the money made from working it. You're aiming to encourage people to make the best use of the smallest amount of land.

  • Perhaps the best way is to allow a certain amount of untaxed land, then an exponential tax scale, effectively putting a hard limit on the amount of land someone can own while leaving small subsistence farmers untaxed.

  • Perhaps you want to ensure there's enough food so all land is taxed and everyone is required to at least get a basic income from their land, before the exponential scale is applied.

Tuning the scale of taxation allows you to dictate the ultimate size of the farms you want. More smaller farms, or fewer larger ones.

Ban all forms of hiring workers and ban slavery

The family that owns land cannot hire others to work the land for them. This eliminates sharecropping, serfery, and indentured servitude. Instead, the family has to farm the land by themselves.

The main reason people in the Middle Ages could accumulate tons of property and wealth was because they could afford debt slaves or hire workers to work the land for them. Then they sold most of the crops and gave a small portion to the farmers. The large income they received enabled them to purchase more land and hire more farmers, gradually increasing their land size.

To stop all this, ban the hiring or purchasing of labor for farming land. Now your wealthy landowners are just ordinary farmers who have to work to make a living like everyone else. They can't buy large plots of land because they can't afford more and they can't farm large land areas. The farm size is cost prohibitive.

Note that this law is easy to enforce. It doesn't become a problem until a large estate starts to develop, Farmer Billy helping out his next door neighbor Farmer Fred and getting an onion in return isn't a problem, but when a large estate starts to develop these estates can be easily checked to see if they contain non-family workers.

What about marrying all of your servants into the family? All adults working the land have to be related and share the title of the land. If you give custody to your servants too, you can't be sure they won't just sell their share of the land and run off. The land titles also make dividing land up between sons equal. When both sons share the land, the existing land will be split in half, instead of going to the oldest son. Over generations, farms will naturally break apart.

You were on the right track with limiting individual land ownership. In specific, make sure that land can only be owned by those who work it, with a suitable exception to handle death of the farmer, etc.

"A farm may only be held for a year and a day by persons who did not work it. One person may not own more farmland than he and his immediate family can work."

Farms can still be sold and bought, but the investor would have to find a new owner-tenant within a year.

"At the death of a farmer, the farm may not be used to settle debts. It goes to the heir. It may not be split between heirs unless each plot can feed a family."

This limits the ability to get loans with the farm as a collateral, but it also allows the next generation a fresh start.

There isn't one.

There will always be those who find it easier to take than to make (bandits).

Someone will have to protect the farms from bandits. This can be any sort of group that gets together a strong fighting force. The fighting force needs to eat, so it needs to be supported by the farmers. Now the farmers have a force that is stronger than the bandits but there is nothing that keeps the farmers in control of that force in the long run. Eventually, someone will come along who likes power and use that force to control the farmers. Since that person or group will control the farmers, they will be wealthy (regardless of what they call themselves).

BTW, as far as Communism goes, if the state owns the farms, the ones who run the state are wealthy. Communism is simply an aristocracy with the names changed (party member = noble; worker = serf).

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    Why can't the government collect taxes from farmers and supply law enforcement (like it's typically been happening in history)? – Alexander Oct 18 at 18:31
  • @Alexander. No reason at all. That's what happens when the farmers ask someone to protect their lands. The reality is that whatever group is protecting them will become wealthy and then has the power to command them. Remember that the premise is a new Dark Ages city state. City 1 needs to control its farmland to keep City 2 from controlling it. – ShadoCat Oct 18 at 18:40
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    If understand the premise correctly, the goal is for city council to prevent plutocracy. If government provides law enforcement, then the farmers and land are all but irrelevant, and the real problem is how the council would prevent its own corruption. – Alexander Oct 18 at 18:49
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    @Alexander, exactly. It also depends on how you define corruption. It is easier for a city council to interact with one (or a few) representatives of the farmers. It almost always boils down to a concentration of power over time. – ShadoCat Oct 18 at 19:19
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    @jean, exactly. Any organization, no matter the ideals with which it is formed, will eventually be run by people who want to have, keep, and grow power. – ShadoCat Oct 18 at 23:57

There isn't just one way to do this. Like you said, I can't see the farms being owned by the state, but some form of regulation is obviously needed. One way you could do it would be to divide the farmland equally amongst your citizens. Each man (or woman, depending on how progressive your society is) would have the same acreage as everyone else.

People would farm, and improve their land, and even sell to or buy land from other people. However, every five years (or however long you decide) the land is redistributed again among all the citizens. That way, even if one person does gain a monopoly on a vast portion of the land, the monopoly is short lived, before being redistributed after a set amount of time.

This strategy has the benefit of people still wanting to improve their land, while also making any monopolies short lived. Again, this is just one possible solution to your problem.

  • I like this answer but it means land cannot be sold or rented, it must be "borrowed" but from who? One institution must be responsible to the distribuition, it can the gov, elders concil, by random draft, etc – jean Oct 18 at 19:46
  • You're right, it would be like borrowing. I should have said that instead of buying. I'm not sure what you mean by who they would borrow from. Suppose one family wasn't actively using a half acre of their land. A neighbor could pay them to let him use it for the remainder of the 5 year period, when the land would be redistributed again. – John Doe Oct 19 at 2:13

Your country could have an explicit commitment to the ideals of Jeffersonian Democracy which opposes aristocracy in any form, and ascribes virtue to the modest, self-reliant "yeoman farmer". Agrarianism, in other words.

Your society could have had some equivalent to the homestead act, distributing land to promote agrarianism. Perhaps they worried if the land could be transferred easily, people would take their free land and sell it instantly. Aggregating homesteads into large farms would conflict with the aim of creating virtuous yeoman farmers, your society banned it.

Of course, for this to make sense you need to develop sophisticated political ideas and a government that can enforce this stuff before all your land is developed.

A progressive land tax (similar to many countries' income tax) would have a limiting effect on profits from large holdings.

This could be calibrated so that land becomes unprofitable and indeed a money sink at whatever size the regulators choose.

If it starts low or has a tax free threshold under which land is tax free then it will provide a commercial advantage for smaller land owners.

Use command economy

While command and planned economy makes us think about USSR & co, an earlier version existed during the Antiquity, like in pre-Apocalypse Egypt. The principle is that all land is de facto owned by the regime, and economic activities like working the land, transporting seeds to the farmers, maintaining canals or crafting new hoes is directed by an administration.

This works pretty well as long as things are stable, society is conservative (as in "doesn't ask for change"), complexity is low enough and there is enough wealth to maintain the administration.

It is rather difficult to implement from scratch (as the experiments of the XXe century showed), but if the city-state worked that way before the collapse, it may have managed to keep it running. It means that it was spared most of what caused the collapse in the first place, though, and didn't rely too much on trade, or they would have been unable to adapt to such an extent.

For it to look like a liberal democracy requires that most people have access to basic education, so bright enough children can go up the social ladder and join the administration even if their parents are farmers. Politically, it will be very conservative, as noted above, or it will be dangerously unstable - given how much surplus it needs to support the administration, particularly with antique/early medieval tech, it is one demagogue away from a runaway collapse.

One way your society could go about doing this is have most of the productive land belong to the government and not purchasable. Instead, each year before it's sowing time, farmers come in and either bid on a plot of land or line up based on their previous year's harvest. The size of the plot is probably variable and capped at some max size, so if you're a large farming company you could get a good chunk to farm on, but you can't monopolize it, and if you're a lone farmer you can get a small plot that you can manage.

Then they get the rights to that land until harvest and they only have to pay for it at the end of the lease term, so they don't need any upfront capital.

This way just trying to own the land without working it would serve no purpose or give any benefit. Getting the lease would be no different from renting a shed of farming equipment. An investment, only useful if you put it to use, no further purpose than that.

It would also encourage competition between farmers to develop better, more efficient farming techniques, since those who can make the most of the land would outbid or get first choice over the less efficient farmers.

Farmland then would not be of any interest to the wealthy unless they plan to farm on it for profit, just like combine harvesters. The farmland would just be a means of food production.

Land that isn't farmland could still be owned normally, but perhaps farming on it can be taxed more.

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