to pastures new…

…specifically to Mongolia, where the International Herald Tribune finds a modern tragedy of the commons and offers some clues to the intriguing questions: whose horde was it anyway? And exactly how right wing was Genghis Khan?

Before the freewheeling 1960s, before Mao led China to revolution in 1949 and before the Soviets took control of this country in 1921, Mongolia was already one giant commune.

“Land here never belonged to anyone; it belonged to everyone,” said Davasuren, 50, a self-described “retired nomad” in this tiny village 30 kilometers, or 20 miles, south of Ulan Bator, the capital. Like many Mongolians, he uses only one name.

Despite the reputation for violent acquisitiveness that Mongolians acquired when Genghis Khan and the Golden Horde forged the world’s greatest land empire in the 12th and 13th centuries, Mongolia developed as a communal land-sharing system long before capitalists and Communists clashed over the principles of property and ownership…

Many local politicians and economists now say that Mongolia’s traditional land regime is the core cause of its backwardness and want to replace it with a Westernized property management system under which land would be parceled out and privatized.

“Our plan is, every citizen gets some land free once, in one area,” said Myagmarsuren Dechinlkhundev, consultant to the government’s standing committee on environment and rural development in Ulan Bator.

In cities it might be just 0.3 hectares, or more than 0.7 acres, he said, but in rural areas it could be about 0.75 hectares.

“Doing this in rural areas,” he said, “faces more difficulties, but we’re determined to go ahead. Private land is the base for a free economy.”

Via Jim Henley, who offers a vigorous libertarian critique of crony privatization and links to Hit and Run, where Jesse Walker comments:

Sounds like a terrible misapplication of De Soto’s ideas. They aren’t legalizing de facto property ownership so the people can vivify their “dead capital”; they’re undermining a long-established system of property ownership that evolved to fit the needs of a particular society, and imposing one that’s obviously ill-suited for the steppes.

I think there may be another dimension here as well. Land privatization has been a big issue in Mongolia for a number of years and has been the subject of large scale protests, especially from rural herdsmen and farming families. According to the Mongolian politician Oyun:

“We need economic strength to guarantee our political existance. This is a serious matter. I was in the foreign correspondent’s club in Beijing two months ago and one young journalist actually said to me: ‘we have very confused feelings about Mongolia because Mongolia is part of China’”

Cited in John Man’s Genghis Khan – Life, Death and Resurrection.

I suppose a conventional market economist would say that land privatization offers a solution to this dilemma. It gives people a quantifiable stake in the country and starts a process of local capital accumulation that will lead to further investment in Mongolian industry and commerce. The problem is that the most likely source of the capital to kick start this process comes from China, where, as John Man puts it:

There is a feeling that China is not quite China, that the real China is the China as it was under Genghis’ heirs (the Yuan dynasty – JK) and that Genghis is to be admired as the only Chinese ruler to invade Europe and win…

…half of Genghis’ heartland, the half that lies below the Gobi, has been absorbed already and its traditional way of life turned into designer chic and tourist fare. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the other half will follow. There would be no need for war. The pressure of commerce and slow colonization would be enough. It would be a strange irony if the farmer and urbanite were to take over the last heartland of the pastoral nomads; for if they do it will be in the name of Genghis Khan, ther man who made Mongolia part of China. And if the Mongols resist this pressure, they too will do it in the name of Genghis, the man who made China part of Mongolia.

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