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August 30, 2006



Wiki says (1) "Racism ... maintain[s] that the essential value of an individual person can be determined according to a perceived or ascribed racial category and that social discrimination by race is therefore justifiable. (2)... [it] usually includes the belief that people differ in aptitudes and abilities (such as intelligence, physical prowess, or virtue) according to race." (The numbers were inserted by me.)
The problem with this is that one can accept (2) while rejecting (1): indeed, I'd guess that many people do, particularly if (2) is made clearer by inserting "on average" after "people". So "racism" has rather a muddled definition, meaning that "racist" can be rather a muddled charge. Still, I agree with you, m'lud: not guilty.

james higham

Certainly makes you think. In Canberra, Australia, where I've never lived, there used to be no fences between properties in many areas. It always struck me as strange but now it appears to be a good way to go. However, I doubt they're very nomadic down under.

emmanuel goldstein

The generalisation is undersupported; Africa is a big place, and it doesn’t appear that he’s done a survey of the very various property-rights arrangements. What's definitely true is that land/labour ratios across sub-saharan Africa vary widely.

I suspect what you're worried about is the *formal* property rights. For there are, in general, well-understood informal patterns of ownership across Africa. But, presumably, it's of little use or interest if these remain sharply-defined, but informal. For then they're neither widely tradeable nor can they be properly valued. Why then are people unwilling (or unable) to formalise their property arrangements?

Well, formalisation requires commerce with the state; the state, for the last century or so, has been the deadly foe of the life and property of the ordinary African. The colonial polity was quite to any property rights which didn't result in a large pool of destitute male labour (unless those rights were held by the collaborator classes), and the post-colonial state has been even worse (e.g. Mobutu’s destruction of any serious legal regime in the 1970’s).

Two other things: the variety of ethnic groups within the typical African state means that a national system of formal property rights that respects traditional land-ownership will be very hard to install. Also, if the new nationalists were going to win their post-colonial battle for power with the traditional leaders, traditional forms of power and patronage had to be destroyed.


If someone says of Zimbabwe "The British took land from the Shona, who had taken it from the Ndebele, who had taken it from the Bushmen, who....", is that meaningful or not? If so, must there have been some sort of property rights?

emmanuel goldstein

1. Dearieme, I'm not sure what you're on about.

2. I've now had an opportunity to look at both the samizdata discussion and the discussion at Owen Barder's and it's obvious that:
a. the statements were racist, as were quite a few others on the samizdata thread that Owen Barder pointed out. They attribute some moral property to members of a perceived racial group on the basis of membership of that group.
b. the commentators on the samizdata thread are both shockingly ignorant, and rather stupid. Some of them seemed to think that there was some sort of fair competition in which European forms of formal land tenure won out. In many places in colonial Africa, and especially in regions with sizeable settler populations, there were serious legal restrictions on the quality and quantity of land that black Africans could own; both to ensure a ready supply of labour for white farmers and to protect them from competition (amongst other reasons). Reaching for the racial explanation first, and ignoring really rather well-known facts like these, suggests non-nice things about that lot.

3. Africans must find it rather tiresome to be convicted of a supposed inability to respect property rights by the descendants and beneficiaries of those who had absolutely no compunction in slaving, cheating and shooting their way to possession of vast tracts of their land.


There's nothing wrong with racism though: Without racism, there would be less diversity.


Emmanuel - I take your point. It is silly to generalize about "Africa". And you're right that property rights can be informal - what was that I was saying about the importance of tacit knowledge?
Maybe what I meant was "formal explicit individual property in some parts of Africa".


"Dearieme, I'm not sure what you're on about" I'll try again. A short while ago you complained of British settlers stealing Masai land. As far as I know, that complaint is valid. But it implies that the Masai had property rights, however much one might qualify them with "informal" - whatever that means. It may well be that whoever was there before the Masai also viewed themselves as having property rights. And so ad infinitum. I'm pointing to an inconsistency, that's all. In addition, I doubt the implication from Chris that nomads don't feel that they have property rights. Maybe in special cases, but I'll bet not universally.

emmanuel goldstein

[…you complained of British settlers stealing Masai land. As far as I know, that complaint is valid. But it implies that the Masai had property right, however much one might qualify them with "informal" - whatever that means]

Dearieme, I think I have a clearer idea of what you mean.

You say that if the British stole land from the Maasai then it follows that one cannot complain unless one holds that the Maasai had property rights. It doesn’t. A can harm B, even where B doesn’t have a concept of the harm done to him by A. Presumably, poisoning a baby who lacks the concept POISON would still count as poisoning. The issues you raise are separate.

It is true that the Maasai had clear conceptions of property rights. Who could use what bit of land and for what purpose was determined by some complicated combination of age, sex, male line of descent, clan and so on. Disputes appear to have been sorted out by appeal to your local male gerontocrat(s). And so on. At the best of times, this system leads to mad, interminable wrangles. This is not the best of times; it’s patently unfit for modern life. But it’s a system of property rights all the same.

I meant nothing particularly technical by my use of the adjective ‘informal’; the point was just that there’s a lot of property that’s held by traditional rules; i.e. according to rules that are not universally (publicly?) accessible. Changing that is a surprisingly difficult task. (Imagine the sharp younger son who goes to the local land registration board and pays the Land Registrar, who then allocates him the family farm...)


Fair nuff, EG.

Chris Williams

"the commentators on the samizdata thread are both shockingly ignorant, and rather stupid."

So no change there then. Some of the samizdatists (Herbert, Micklethwait) are worth a few minutes of my time every so often, but the loony tune nutjobs who trail round after them are the worst arguments for democracy that I've ever encountered. And I used to read the comments on Harry's Place.

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