David Ricardo: Machiavelli of the Margin

In my course this semester at the Graduate Center, “The Political Theory of Capitalism,” we’ve been exploring how some of the classics of modern political economy translate, traduce, transmit, efface, revise, and/or sublimate traditional categories of and concepts in Western political theory: consent, obedience, rule, law, and so forth.

Through economic thinkers like Smith, Ricardo, Keynes, Schumpeter, Jevons, and the like, we try and read political economy as the distinctively modern idiom of political theory. In the same way that religion provided a distinctive language and vocabulary for political thought after Rome and before the Renaissance, might not economics provide modern political theory with its own distinctive idiom and form? In other words, our interest in the political moment of economic discourse is not when the state intervenes or intrudes; it’s when economic discourse seems to be most innocent of politics. That’s when we find the most resonant and pregnant political possibilities.

I’ll give you an example.

For the last several weeks we’ve been reading and talking about Ricardo’s On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, which I have to admit, damn near killed me. Turns out it’s really hard to teach a text you don’t understand.

But one of the more interesting—and, at least to me, semi-intelligible—arguments in Ricardo is his account of rent. (I don’t think the problem is Ricardo; it’s me.) For it’s there, in his chapter on rent, that he introduces the idea of the margin. I could be wrong, but I don’t see anything like a notion of the margin in other parts of the book. It’s all in his chapter on rent. (Ricardo experts or intellectual historians: is that right? Are there other places in Ricardo’s texts where he talks about the margin? Were there other theorists prior to Ricardo who talked about it?)

Now that in and of itself is interesting: Is there something to be gleaned from or learned about the idea of the margin from the fact that it arose, for Ricardo, in the context of a discourse on rent?

Anyway, here are three places in his chapter on rent where he talks about the idea of the margin:

The reason then, why raw produce rises in comparative value, is because more labour is employed in the production of the last portion obtained, and not because a rent is paid to the landlord.

Raw material enters into the composition of most commodities, but the value of that raw material, as well as corn, is regulated by the productiveness of the portion of capital last employed on the land, and paying no rent; and therefore rent is not a component part of the price of commodities.

It follows from the same principles, that any circumstances in the society which should make it unnecessary to employ the same amount of capital on the land, and which should therefore make the portion last employed more productive, would lower rent.

Ricardo’s basic idea of rent is that it arises from the differential in the quality of two tracts of land. So we start with land that is lush and fertile and easily farmed. At some point the population will require more food and more land will have to be put into play. So we move to the next piece of land, which is slightly less fertile and lush. At that point, the first piece of land generates a rent: the farmer and/or capitalist who use it will be willing to pay slightly extra in order not to have to use the slightly less fertile lend. And then we move to the third piece of land. And so on.

Ricardo’s basic intuition is that rent arises from difference:

If all land had the same properties, if it were unlimited in quantity, and uniform in quality, no charge could be made for its use, unless where it possessed peculiar advantages of situation. It is only, then, because land is not unlimited in quantity and uniform in quality, and because in the progress of population, land of an inferior quality, or less advantageously situated, is called into cultivation, that rent is ever paid for the use of it. When in the progress of society, land of the second degree of fertility is taken into cultivation, rent immediately commences on that of the first quality, and the amount of that rent will depend on the difference in the quality of these two portions of land.

At some point, we reach a final piece of land, beyond which it simply does not pay to work it at all. That final piece of land generates no rent; all it can afford is a wage to the laborer and a profit to labor’s employer. The tract of land just before that one generates a very little bit of rent. The one before that a little bit more. And so on back to the best land.

That last piece of really crappy land—with its concomitant last exertion of labor or last expenditure of capital—sets the value for the class of commodities that are produced on all the lands. For it is there, on that worst land, that the most labor will have to be expended in order to generate the commodity (the amount of labor required to produce the commodity determines the value of the commodity).

The exchangeable value of all commodities, whether they be manufactured, or the produce of the mines, or the produce of land, is always regulated, not by the less quantity of labour that will suffice for their production under circumstances highly favorable, and exclusively enjoyed by those who have peculiar facilities of production; but by the greater quantity of labour necessarily bestowed on their production by those who have no such facilities; by those who continue to produce them under the most unfavorable circumstances; meaning—by the most unfavorable circumstances, the most unfavorable under which the quantity of produce required, renders it necessary to carry on the production.

And while that last bit of land generates no rent—for all the value of the commodities sold is devoted to the wages of labor and the profit of the capitalist—every infinitesimal differential above that last bit of land will generate a rent. And though that last bit of land doesn’t generate a rent, the value of the rents on the better lands will be set by the value of the commodities produced on that last bit of land. The value of the commodities on that last bit will be high—”with every worse quality [of land] employed, the value of the commodities in the manufacture of which they were used, would rise, because equal quantities of labour would be less productive”—so the more productive labor working the better land will produce more commodities, so that better land will fetch a high rent.

Anyway, that’s the little bit of economics I could figure out (and I probably didn’t even get that right.)

But here’s the interesting part for me, as a political theorist.

In political theory, the great political moment, the highest mode of political action, is the founding of a new polity. Read Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, Nietzsche, Arendt: the founding moment is when all the basic laws, institutions, customs and mores of the polity are set out. It’s a moment of great drama and great art (that’s why Aeschylus mined it to such tremendous effect in the last play of the trilogy The Oresteia).

For political theorists of this vein, the further away you move from the founding moment—the further in time and place—the more loss, decay, corruption you will see. There is simply a fact of entropy that sets in, once the fervor and fever of that founding moment is lost. Machiavelli’s great obsession with Rome has much to do with the distance in time and space that the republic/empire travels from its founding as a small city.

The art of politics, then, is to steal back from time (and space) what it takes from the polity as it was founded, to deprive age of its ravages, to find a way to repeat the intensity, the engagement, the connection and commitment, of that founding moment. Whether through education, laws, festivals, rites, wars, what have you.

It struck me in reading Ricardo just how much the marginal theory of rent turns that idea of a founding moment on its head. Where the western theoretical tradition begins with a moment in time and place, and sees a threat in any movement away from that time and place, Ricardo’s theory of the margin begins at the opposite end of that process, with the last tract of land, which is furthest removed from the original tract in both time and space. And where the founding tradition of political theory sees the founding as the source of value from which all politics and morals emanate and decay—the founding is the pacesetter of values—the marginal theory of rent sees the outer limits of decay and decadence as the source of value: of the labor on that outer tract of land that is required for the production of the commodity, of the value of the commodity itself, and of the rent that commodity will generate on the inner tracts of land.

Ricardo himself seems to have had some intuition of how strange this all is. Not from a political theory perspective (though his comments are quite generative on that score) but from a more general cultural and sociological perspective:

Nothing is more common than to hear of the advantages which the land possesses over every other source of useful produce, on account of the surplus which it yields in the form of rent. Yet when land is most abundant, when most productive, and most fertile, it yields no rent; and it is only when its powers decay, and less is yielded in return for labour, that a share of the original produce of the more fertile portions is set apart for rent. It is singular that this quality in the land, which should have been noticed as an imperfection, compared with the natural agents by which manufacturers are assisted, should have been pointed out as constituting its peculiar pre-eminence.

Rent arises from decay, from the distance traveled from that founding tract of land.

And here’s where the fact that the marginal theory arises in the context of an account of rent, of money paid to a semi-aristocratic landlord, might matter. For in classical political theory of the kind we’ve been examining here, the supreme political actor is often assumed to be some sort of propertied worthy, a member of the landed gentry (that was part of the Country tradition of Bolingbroke’s circle in 18th century England) or such. His landed independence frees from him the imperatives of fear and favor, makes him a creature of civic virtue. It is a precondition of his agency.

But in Ricardo’s hands, the landlord is completely without agency. He’s more than a parasite; he’s utterly passive. Not only do his rents derive from the activities of others, but they go up in response to the imperatives of population growth that compel the harvesting of new and less fertile lands. He doesn’t act at all; he merely presides over and profits from the expansions and exertions of others.

And where the landed gentry of the political tradition are expected to attend to the maintenance and the upkeep of the polity, the preservation of its founding fervor, the landlords of Ricardo have a vested interest in the decay and demise of the lands and labors surrounding them. For that decay and demise provide the raw ingredients of difference that serve as the source of their rents.

Without multiplying instances, I hope enough has been said to show, that whatever diminishes the inequality in the produce obtained from successive portions of capital employed on the same or on new land, tends to lower rent; and that whatever increases that inequality, necessarily produces an opposite effect, and tends to raise it.

…it is obvious that the landlord is doubly benefited by difficulty of production. First, he obtains a greater share, and secondly the commodity in which he is paid is of greater value.

If what I’m saying about Ricardo’s theory of rent (and the significance of the margin for that theory) is true, the question becomes: to what extent can we read the entire tradition of marginal economics, which comes later and moves significantly beyond the category of rent, in a similar light, as standing the basic categories and concepts of political foundings on their head?

Update (November 13, 11:45 pm)

Several folks have asked me to post a copy of the syllabus. Which I thought I had a while back, but turns out the link is dead. So here it is now.


  1. Joanna Bujes November 13, 2014 at 1:11 am | #

    Seems another wonderful example of how capitalism stands everything on its head. Picketty also notes how land-based wealth shifts to capital over the last three hundred years. I personally witnessed the paving over of the best agricultural land in the US (in San Jose and in Stockton) to build Sillicon Valley and a real estate bubble.

    • Paul Rosenberg November 14, 2014 at 12:07 pm | #

      I lived in Campbell (West Side San Jose). The orchards there weren’t paved over to build Silicon Valley. They were mostly gone long before the Apple II first fell from the tree. It was far more mundane suburban sprawl.

  2. billmon November 13, 2014 at 1:26 am | #

    Even in Ricardo’s day, the existence and nature of rent wasn’t just an economic theory. It was as also a very real, practical and (at times) bloody poltical conflict.

    English (and Irish) landlords understood perfectly well that the limited supply of arable land was what we today would call a barrier to entry, and thus a means of extracting rent. But they also knew that a vast source of supply was coming on line in the new polity across the ocean. The result was a 50-year battle over the Corn Laws — the steep British tariffs on imported grain, complete with riots, massacres and dark fears among the elites of an English Bastille Day.

    That battle wasn’t finally won (by the rising industrial bourgeoise, which rightly saw cheap grain as a way to raise workers’ wages out of someone else’s pocket) until 1846, and it took drastic–for England–political reform to do it, in the form of a sweeping parliamentary reapportionment that took seats from rural “rotten boroughs” in the south and gave them to growing industrial towns in the north. Not exactly the birth of a more democratic England, but a landmark in the development of a classically liberal one.

    The larger point, though, is that rent-seeking behavior (via monopolies, regulatory capture, state contracts, etc.) is an intrinsic feature of capitalism, early and late. In static, conservative political systems where power is concentrated and oligarchies are entrenched, it becomes that much easier to obtain–and keep–them. Just ask the Koch brothers.

  3. partisan November 13, 2014 at 3:06 am | #

    This probably isn’t directly relevant, but Historical Journal just published yesterday an article by Michael Taylor called “Conservative Political Economy and the problem of Colonial Slavery, 1823-1833,” which argues that the first was really a defense of the second. This political economy was anti-Ricardo.

  4. Bjorheim, Jacob November 13, 2014 at 4:07 am | #

    Dear Cory –
    I am reading your write-ups on the marginalists with interest. I have not yet found the time to think more deeply about your suggestions. Nonetheless, I would encourage you to continue digging!
    Best regards
    Jacob Bjorheim


    Jacob BJORHEIM
    Head of Asset Management
    Banking Department

    Aeschenplatz 1
    CH-4002 Basel , Switzerland
    Tel: +41 61 280 6465; General: +41 61 280 8080
    Cel: +41 79 341 2880; Fax: +41 61 280 9100
    P Please consider the environment before printing

  5. Neel Krishnaswami November 13, 2014 at 4:59 am | #

    In the history of economics that economists tell each other, Ricardo is *not* a marginalist: he’s a classical economist, just like Smith and Mill. (Marginalism begins with Marshall/Jevons/Walras’s rejection of the idea of value having anything to do with price level. Ricardo was dead decades before any of this happened.)

    In fact, you can easily argue that Marx is the last major classical economist! He’s in a very direct line of descent from Smith and Ricardo — you can easily blow your students’ minds by pointing out that Marx’s theory of value is an elaboration of Smith’s, right down to the terminology. (If memory serves, doesn’t *On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation* start with the labor theory of value?) Furthermore, Ricardo’s theory of rent (and the parasitical rentier) is plausibly the inspiration of Marx’s theory of exploitation — “capital” can be thought of as a claim on the production of machinery by people who don’t use it, in just the same way that “rent” is a claim on the production of land by people who don’t use it.

    On top of this, billmon is not just right as a matter of sociology, but he or she is also right in terms of the intellectual history — Ricardo and Malthus were rivals, and his theory of rent was intended partly to refute Malthus’s “iron law of wages” (that all wages would inevitably tend to the subsistence level), by explaining how the existence of unused productive land implies that wages should be higher-than-subsistence.

    I would say that from a modern perspective, Ricardo and Smith are probably best understood as precursors to Marx, with Marshall and Walras being understood as the real originators of modern-day economics. The Bohm-Bawerk critique of Marx (which you probably know much better than I, honestly) is really where the modern argument between the left and the right in political theory starts.

    • Corey Robin November 13, 2014 at 10:07 am | #

      Who claimed or even suggested that Ricardo was a marginalist?

      • Neel Krishnaswami November 13, 2014 at 11:13 am | #

        You did, in your closing paragraph, when you suggest reading the marginalism as a continuation of Ricardo.

        I think this is a mistake: Ricardo’s theory of rent is better-understood as a precursor to Marxist theories of exploitation, because Marx and Ricardo shared the same theory of value. On the other hand, Smith/Ricardo/Marx and the marginalists have radically different understandings of value.

        For example, you will not find a serious discussion of the distinction between use-value and exchange-value in any modern microeconomics textbook, because the fundamental innovation of the marginalist tradition was the abandonment of the objective idea of value in favor of the subjective idea of utility.

        The real point of tension in the marginalist view (and probably the best place to connect it to political theory) is within the process of price-setting itself. It’s long been known that for general equilibrium to hold, the price-setting process has to be conducted in a quite special way (c.f. Walras’s fictional auctioneer and the process of tatonnement, which actually only works under special conditions), which brings institutions into markets in a way that economists have been surprisingly reluctant (IMO) to seriously examine.

        Franklin Fisher’s 2010 paper “The Stability of General Equilibrium – What Do We Know and Why Is It Important?” (at http://economics.mit.edu/files/6988) is probably the best summary of what theoretical economists have done so far.

  6. Roquentin November 13, 2014 at 7:28 am | #

    A few observations (I’m using these numbered lists to comment here a lot, it seems):

    1) This class sounds very good. The idea that political economy or economics subverts traditional political categories and signifiers is a thesis well worth exploring.

    2) When you talk about “the founding of a new polity” as the supreme event in political theory, I could only think of Alain Badiou. He eloquently outlines this relationship, with his ideas about “fidelity to the event.” Basically, after the event occurs there is only the long and perpetual process of deciding which situations do and don’t belong to the event. Strangely enough, the same basic logic applies to love for him. The use of the term “fidelity” is not mere coincidence. You meet someone, there’s a founding event, you’re now a couple and the rest of the relationship is deciding what does or does not happen, if specific subsequent situations can be included in the relationship.

    Or something like that. I read it a couple of years ago. You talk about a Ricardo almost killing you, but I’d say Being and Event kicked my ass like few books I’ve tried to get through before or since. I put a lot of effort into cobbling together an understanding of Set Theory.

    3) The only time I’d heard of Ricardo before this was reading Marx. On that same note, when Marx talks about the unemployed as the “reserve army of capital” it follows precisely the same logic. Far from being a problem, unemployed people are absolutely necessary for capitalism, because it drives wages down, there’s always someone desperate who will do the work for less, etc. Is this not the same as the argument here about land and rents? To me it unemployment serves roughly the same role in coercing the population into alienated labor as prison. The bourgeoisie can say “you’re going to do exactly as we say or you’ll end up like them.” Without the poor and destitute this argument holds no water.

    This even fits into how the political right hates welfare and loves prison.

  7. Escott November 13, 2014 at 11:01 am | #

    “…the question becomes: to what extent can we read the entire tradition of marginal economics, which comes later and moves significantly beyond the category of rent, in a similar light, as standing the basic categories and concepts of political foundings on their head?”
    Well, if not the founding of political concepts, definitely the growth of their value (rent)
    Example: the hysterical vilification of Cuba under Castro, a Nation that was no threat, except to the “landlords” of the democratic brand name.

  8. Corey Robin November 13, 2014 at 11:37 am | #

    Neel Krishnaswami: “You did, in your closing paragraph, when you suggest reading the marginalism as a continuation of Ricardo.”

    You’re misreading that last paragraph. What I wrote was this: “the entire tradition of marginal economics, which comes later and moves significantly beyond the category of rent.”

    As I made clear in my post, the idea of the margin is a one-off of Ricardo’s theory of rent. The marginalists will run with the idea of a margin in developing their own subjectivist accounts. You don’t need to instruct me in any of that. I’ve written extensively on how the marginalists departed from the world of classical political economy and the labor theory of value in favor of subjective utility models. Incidentally, I think you’re wrong about Marx and Ricardo sharing a theory of value, though that is a common misconception among readers of Marx. But that’s another argument for another day.

    • Steffan Wyn-Jones November 13, 2014 at 12:37 pm | #

      “Incidentally, I think you’re wrong about Marx and Ricardo sharing a theory of value, though that is a common misconception among readers of Marx.”
      Spot on. Simon Clarke’s ‘Marx, Marginalism, and Modern Sociology’ is an excellent text on this (available freely on his website too). I highly recommend reading it as you teach classical political economy.

    • Neel Krishnaswami November 14, 2014 at 5:19 am | #

      Google supplied your essay on Nietzsche and the Austrians to me shortly after I commented. I found it very illuminating, and I think I now better understand why the Austrians and mainstream marginalists (i.e., neoclassicals) hate each other so passionately, and why Austrians are so resistant to mathematical economics.[*]

      For the neoclassicals, the point of utility theory is that it lets you prove Walras’s law, namely that general market equilibria exist. Then, they can talk in terms of market equilibria, plus shocks which quickly move the economy from one equilibrium to another.

      But the assumption that the economy quickly adjusts is amounts to the assumption that entrepreneurship and other forms of market action are easy, pervasive and commonplace. This directly contradicts the heroic narrative of the entrepeneur that the Austrians want to embrace. This puts the Austrians in a serious bind, since the neoclassicals make the same assumptions as they do, but use them to derive conclusions which they hate. So to resolve this cognitive dissonance, they deny that mathematical reasoning is appropriate for economics.

      [*] For example, see Noah Smith’s blog post “Austrian Economists, 9/11 Truthers and Brain Worms”, which is a very restrained bit of invective, as these things go!

  9. s mccleary November 14, 2014 at 12:30 pm | #

    I came across a short essay published today which may interest some of your students, “Ideological Foundations of Mainstream Neoclassical Economics: Class Interests as “Economic Theory” by Prof. Ismael Hossein-Zadeh, published at the website,
    Global Research, November 14, 2014.

    He touches upon the ideology of marginalism and marginal utility theory in historical context.

  10. Mara November 19, 2014 at 1:51 pm | #

    It sounds about right that marginalist theory takes as its foundation the principle that the proliferation of low-quality conditions of production, by exerting a low-wage/low-profit baseline or norm, allows core capital to accumulate the majority of the surplus value. Wallstreet depends not (just) on labour exploitation but on desperate production, for its rentier stage of M-C-M’.

    In this sense, marginalism is the historical theory of the new latifundia political-economy, the peripheral political-economy, where an internationally-oriented fraction controls all, takes loans from liquid (oil) rentiers and leaves to the penniless mass to pay them off, with Volckerian interest, and markets and technological development, if ever born, go to die. Some minor-players’ or states’ capital must be destroyed for core capital to grow.

  11. Kean Birch November 28, 2014 at 8:46 am | #

    Great post – rent is something I’m currently trying to get my head round more thoroughly so it’s useful to see a view from someone coming at it blind (as it were).

    What I got from what you wrote (and from a quick Google search!) is that economic rent – in Ricardian terms – basically means that bringing more and more crappy “stuff” into circulation increases the value of the good “stuff” (because if crappy stuff is worth x then good stuff has to be worth x+n). I’m using stuff as opposed to commodity (which you use) because I think it’s really all about assets (i.e. stuff that produces an income, rather than stuff that is sold for profit – to simplify the IAS definition).

    To illustrate, it’s interesting that the value of housing has increased massively (esp. as ratio of income) as the number of houses and home owners has increased, bringing crappier and crappier housing into the ownership market (as evident in the subprime bubble).

    Anyway, thanks for the post …

  12. Mark Scott December 21, 2014 at 3:52 am | #

    You asked, “Is there something to be gleaned from or learned about the idea of the margin from the fact that it arose, for Ricardo, in the context of a discourse on rent?” I think there is. None of your respondents addressed your interest in “the idea of the margin.” I’ve tried for years to find a discussion of the use of the term “margin” (and its relatives “marginal increment,” “marginal utility,” “margins,” “margin call,” etc.) in economic and business discourse, always with the feeling that, in other “fields” too (c.f., Derrida, *Margins of Philosophy,* “White Mythology”), people use it as if needs no defining. Ricardo uses it in relation to agriculture, husbandry, and property holding—that is, to land, as land is marked by the uses people make of it: arable, pasture, meadow, close, or indeterminate. These terms are from Table X of R. H. Tawney’s *The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century* (Harper, 1967, 225). That last word, “indeterminate,” might be said to hold the problem of the margin, which Ricardo’s interest in “rent” as one of “the principles of political economy” excuses him from seeing in 1817. Roughly a century later, in 1912, Tawney’s interest in “the agrarian problem” as one of economic history shows him “rents,” as his Index has the word, in a richer context. “Margin” is not in Tawney’s Index, nor is “Ricardo,” and Tawney writes “see Agriculture” after “Cultivation” and “see Peasants” after “Cultivators” (444). Of the many things Tawney explains instead of “margin,” hedges, encroachments, boundaries, rights of common, grazing, strips, and waste land are a few from which something is “to be gleaned or learned about the idea of the margin.” Under the subheading “The Struggle for the Commons,” Tawney writes a passage in which the once central small margins on a small scale are “less innocently” expropriated by the once marginal large holders on an unprecendented scale:

    But sporadic encroachments are not the worst which the small man has to fear. He may wake to find the path along which he drives his beasts to pasture blocked by a hedge. When he goes to renew his lease or buy the reversion of his copy, he may be told that his holding is to be be merged in a pasture farm. The great estate is not always built up by the mere consolidation of pieces of land which are already united in ownership, though spatially they may be separate. If it were there would be few statutes and few riots; for the law looks with a favorable eye on such attempts at improved cultivation, and the peasants have long been doing on a small scale what the capitalist farmer does on a large. The great estate is formed in another and less innocent way, by throwing together holdings whose possession is separate, though spatially they may be contiguous. It is the result of addition, not simply of organisation; of addition in which the cyphers are the holdings of numerous small tenants. In such a process the opposition between the interests of the peasantry and those of the manorial authorities is brought to a head. If one man is to run a hedge round a pasture, the pasture must first be stripped of the rights of common which enmesh it. If sheep are to be fed on the sites of ruined cottages, their occupants must first be evicted. It is over the absorption of commons and the eviction of tenants that agrarian warfare—the expression is not too modern or too strong—is waged in the sixteenth century (237).

    Almost 100 years later, in 2002, in the pages of the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, “margin” yields returns to both Ricardo and Tawney as “margins” in E.J.P. Marshall and A.C. Moonen’s “Field margins in northern Europe: their functions and interactions with agriculture.” Like the hiatuses between the 16, 24, or 48 frames per second of a film, “margins” on cultivated and waste lands had “functions” for both Ricardo and Tawney. We don’t see the hiatuses, and Ricardo, it seems, didn’t see the “margin of cultivation” as anything more than the topos of a principle. Tawney saw the margins, and not only as battle lines. To some degree, he saw boundaries, strips, and hedgerows the way his “peasants” and his “capitalist farmer” saw them. But to call them “interactions,” as Marshall and Moonen do, or zones of interaction, is perhaps “too modern” a term for 1912. In 1893, Alfred Marshall got closer to Marshall and Moonen’s interest in “field margins” when he published an essay “On Rent.” “I admit,” he said, “that the soil of old countries is often as much an artificial product as those pieces of earth which have been arranged into brick walls, and that a great deal of it has yielded but a poor return to the vast capital sunk in it even within recent times.” In 2002, Marshall and Moonen list the “original” “roles, requirements and potential functions of semi-natural field margins in good agricultural practice” as follows:

    1. To define the field edge
    2. To be stock- or trespasser-proof, to keep animals in or out
    3. To provide shelter for stock
    4. To provide shelter for crops, particularly as windbreaks
    5. To reduce soil erosion by wind or water
    6. Not to compete with the crop for light, moisture or nutrients
    7. Not to harbour weeds, pests and diseases
    8. To harbour beneficial plants and animals
    9. To act as a refuge or corridor for wildlife
    10. To provide a source of fruits and wood

    No coordinates of time or place are given for this list. They then provide a second list, of “current and potential functions of field margins”:

    A. Promotion of ecological stability in crops
    B. Reducing pesticide use: exploiting pest
    predators and parasitoids
    C. Enhancing crop pollinator populations
    D. Reducing weed ingress and herbicide use
    E. Buffering pesticide drift
    F. Reducing fertiliser and other pollutant movement,
    especially in run-off
    G. Reducing soil erosion
    H. Promotion of biodiversity and farm wildlife conservation
    I. Maintaining landscape diversity
    J. Promotion of game species

    Marshall and Moonen make no mention of the cost of conservative and restorative environmentalism—or, if that is term has too much capital sunk in it, of sustainability. They are a long way from Ricardo and from Tawney, “the tragedy of the commons” intervening.

    Margins will be reduced as fast as they can be bundled and promoted. “The margin of cultivation” is, to adapt Suzette Haden Elgin’s impromptu definition of a word, the smallest separate piece of property that all by itself will have a meaning neither public nor private. (http://www.linguistics.ucla.edu/people/schuh/lx001/PDF_files/01b_Human_language_1.pdf

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