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Property Rights and Dynamics of Institutional Change: The Closing of the Georgia Open Range, 1870-1900


Kantor, Shawn Everett (1991) Property Rights and Dynamics of Institutional Change: The Closing of the Georgia Open Range, 1870-1900. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/e2vp-8958.


The traditional agricultural practice in Georgia from colonial times until after the Civil War allowed animals to roam the countryside freely and forced farmers to erect fences around their growing crops. All unfenced land, therefore, was considered common pasture that could be used by anyone. After the Civil War there was a concerted effort to eradicate the open range policy and to force all livestock owners to fence in their animals instead of forcing farmers to fence them out of the growing crops.

Previous historical research on the fence law debate has portrayed it as a class conflict. Investigation of the qualitative and quantitative evidence, however, shows that a two-class interpretation is wrongly simple. The fence law debate stemmed from the materialistic goals of individuals concerned about the distribution of costs and benefits of fencing crops and livestock.

The Georgia legislature's role in facilitating the closing of the range was crucial. First, it allowed countywide referenda. Upon seeing that majority rule generally failed as a mechanism to facilitate the adoption of a relatively profitable institution, the legislature manipulated the voting rules so as to guarantee compensation for a subset of the expected losers. By forcing the transfer of income from expected winners to losers, the legislature made voluntary enactment of the closed range easier to attain. Moreover, roll call analyses of the enabling legislation refute previous historians' claims that the closed range was designed and implemented for reasons of social control.

Finally, some historians claim that the animosities created during the bitter fence debate of the 1880s generated the bases of support for the Populist movement of the 1890s. The analysis provided in the thesis shows that the "Roots of Southern Populism" cannot be easily found in the fence law conflict.

More generally, the dissertation is a study of institutional change. New institutional economists have been overly concerned with the beginning and end points of institutional change, and have portrayed the process of change as occuring within a "black box." This thesis demonstrates that the dynamics of change must be examined as more than voluntary bargaining between self-interested individuals. Institutional development, instead, must be studied within a broader framework that incorporates the complex interplay between economic, legal, political, and social forces.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:Social Science
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Humanities and Social Sciences
Major Option:Social Science
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Kousser, J. Morgan (advisor)
  • Davis, Lance E. (co-advisor)
Thesis Committee:
  • Kousser, J. Morgan (chair)
  • Kiewiet, D. Roderick
  • Hoffman, Philip T.
Defense Date:25 June 1990
Record Number:CaltechETD:etd-06292007-140435
Persistent URL:
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:2780
Deposited By: Imported from ETD-db
Deposited On:23 Jul 2007
Last Modified:16 Apr 2021 23:22

Thesis Files

PDF (Kantor_se_1991.pdf) - Final Version
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