D. Feeny, ‘The decline of property rights in man in Thailand, 1800-1913’, Journal of Economic History, 49 (1989), 285-96.

Abstract [page 285] Like many land-abundant, labor-scarce economies, Thailand had a well-developed system of property rights in man. Over the nineteenth century corvée slavery were abolished and replaced by military conscription, head tax , and more precise property rights in land. Concomitant trends include extensive commercialization, the growth of international trade, imperialist threats to Thai sovereignty, and the growth of a centralized unitary state.

II

Looking at preindustrial Europe and the Americas provides a number of generalisation about the evolution of property rights in man. [286] Slavery and serfdom are associated with places where land is abundant and labour is scarce. Whether property rights in man takes the form of slavery of serfdom depends on the economy. Slavery is favored where property right are well defined and economic activity is cheaply supervised. Serfdom is favoured where property rights are weak and there is an information asymmetry which favour supervision by he lord.

The model used in this paper involves treating the behaviour of agents in changing institutional frameworks as endogenous. It exploits the metaphors of supply and demand. Demand for change arises when current intuitions leave some benefits uncaptured – i.e the relative real rise in a production factor will lead to a rise in the demand for property rights in that factor to be better defined. [287] The supply of institutional change relies on the flexibility of the political order. The expected net benefit to elite decision makes matters a great deal in defining supply.

III

Early 19th C Thailand was largely a subsistence rice economy but intra-Asian trade was significant. The volume of trade increased though the early 19th C but a major increase occurred in 1855 with the Bowring Treaty with Great Britain and similar treaties with other Western Powers and Japan which established free trade and the exemption of foreign powers from domestic law. The reduction in tariffs reduced central revenue [288] and gave the state an incentive to overhaul its system of public administration. An incentive to bring the Western Powers under domestic control created the impetus for a modern legal system.

Rice exports grew 4.43% by volume and 5.64% by value from 1864 to 1910. The cost of imports did not increase as much and the terms of trade moved in favour of rice. In the same period real wages measured in rice declined by 1.35% per year from 1850 to 1914 (0.7% from 1864 to 1914). This created weaker incentives for well defined property rights in man and stronger incentives for well defined property rights in land.

IV

The paper outlines what property rights in man were like in early 180s Thailand. Thai Society was divided into five categories: the Monarch, members of the royal family, the nobility, commoners and slaves.

[289] Nobles had direct control of the commoners, known as phrai. Phrai were split into three groups who owed different amounts of corvée.

  1. phrai luang who owed 6 months of labour a year to the monarch or 18-24 baht
  2. phrai som who owed 2 months a year to their noble an 1 month per year to the monarch or 6 baht
  3. phrai suai who were obligated to work for 8 days for the monarch or pay 1.5 baht.

There were seven categories of slave, but under two broad headings, war slaves and debt slaves. As there were no well defined property rights in land, people often acted as collateral on loans.

In contrast to property rights in man, property rights in land well less well defined. In theory all land belonged to the king, but in practice land could be used privately so long as no damage was done to it (a usufruct property regime), or not left unattended for a long period of time.

[290] V

The evolution of property rights in Thailand occurred in the context of commercialisation, a struggle for control of manpower between king and nobles, and the centralisation of power in Bangkok. Migration to Bangkok increased the number of wage labourers, commercialisation made payment in money easier and the king could rely on wage labourers rather than serfs for labour. By accepting monetary payment for corvée obligations the king could undercut the nobles and increase his relative power. Competition between noble and monarch reduced the corvée obligations to stop peasants fleeing their onerous workloads. [292]To modernise the state under Chulalongkorn (1868-1910) a head tax replaced the corvée obligation’s nonmilatary role and a conscripted army allowed the king to maintain an army as required.

Parallel to the dismantling of corvée is the abolition of slavery. To undercut the nobility’s power further it was in the king’s interest to reduce the practice of slavery – nobles used slaves extensively as they were both collateral and the spoils of war. [294] In 1868 an edict was issued which meant that the wife’s consent was required to sell her or her children. A gradual reduction in the price of slaves was decreed in 1874, so that all slave children would be freed by 21 – in 1890 this was extended to all slaves and in 1905 slavery was abolished. The price of slaves was to be reduced by 4 baht per month until freedom occurred. [295] This gradual method stopped and large fiscal strain on the state from occurring and reduced opposition from slave owners.

Although humanitarian interests had a role, Thailand had to regain sovereignty and set up a legal system under which foreign powers wold agree to be ruled. The economics were also conducive, the increase in the value of land and rice was well known and this shifted people’s incentives away from slave ownership and towards land ownership for both production and collateral. Evidence suggests that the abolition of slavery allowed labour to move more freely.

[296] Conclusions

Domestic and international political motives, rather than pure economic incentives appears to have played a large role in dismantling human property right regimes. Neither corvée or slavery were abolished because they were unprofitable or because an elite had stopped enjoying their benefits – however economic trends made them relatively less attractive. Rice farming methods of Thailand in the period relied on farmer proprietors and was unsuited to slavery. Economics played a role, but ideological and normative factors played major roles.

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About Left Outside
I blog, I drink, I study at the LSE, I work at a wine shop.

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