July 27, 2011

The Eminently Real Free Market (XX): Sketchy Stories (9): Knocking Nock, Grand Theft Monastery, and Grand Conspiracy

We decline to cross-examine Albert Jay Nock, “that great hero of contemporary libertarians” (17), whom Mr. Ferrara called to the witness stand. Nock’s many literary services to libertarianism cannot save an opinion overthrown by scholarship, which Nock’s generalization (at least as Mr. Ferrara represents it—not a negligible modifier) unfortunately is.
In any case, the fortunes of Austro-Libertarianism do not depend on Nock’s implicit endorsement of a fable by Dickens, which makes The Village Labourer look up-to-date by comparison.
It should not be thought, however, that Mr. Ferrara endorses Nock’s interpretation of the alleged facts, because he “lays the blame for early capitalist depredations entirely upon government intervention rather than rugged individualism and laissez-faire” (17), presumably Mr. Ferrara’s preferred explanans
How individualism (of whatever texture) or a policy of limited governmental intervention could be morally responsible for “depredations,” that is, the unethical behavior of some owners of capital, he leaves to his reader’s imagination, which he is happy to excite with facile generalizations:
. . . the historical truth is that the State and capitalism partnered in the grand theft that caused the destruction of Catholic social order, the loss of village life and the independence of the cottager with his small plot of land, and finally the creation of capitalist social order with all its abuses. (17)
A necessary, if not sufficient, condition of a proposition’s being an historical truth is coherence. A thesis that treats “capitalism” as both cause and effect, however, does not satisfy that condition. If “capitalist social order” is the result of the grand theft, “capitalism” cannot also be behind it. Mr. Ferrara has not even suggested that any individual capitalists were, only that some of them later benefited from that prior State action with which they had nothing to do. What beneficiaries of crime or their heirs ought to do with their property once they realize how it was acquired is a separate moral question, one bearing not at all on the question of the moral goodness of a social order exhaustively comprised of free markets.
In the period in question the only event that qualifies as grand theft is the dissolution of the monasteries consequent to Henry VIII’s edicts (i.e., Act of Supremacy, and the First and Second Suppression Acts). Although Mr. Ferrara’s prose habitually conflates those confiscatory acts with the enclosure of the commons that took place over centuries, by fair means and foul, there is no justification for doing so. Enclosure was not achieved by grand theft. Nor can one sensibly impute such State crimes to owners of capital (the only stable meaning of “capitalists”) or even a concerted move by them to seize power.
Of course, some believe that the theological issues ostensibly presenting themselves when one studies the period were mere ideological “superstructure” erected upon the “base” of the means of production, and that changes in the nature of those means and the struggle over their control hold the Key to History. On this view, Henry VIII and his minions were merely agents (conscious or not) of the nascent English bourgeoisie, incarnating the dialectic of history willy-nilly. Such writers may be politely referred to as historical materialists or, more frankly, Marxists among whom, of course, Mr. Ferrara is not to be numbered.
At least, however, we understand what the Marxist is suggesting. By contrast we do not know what Mr. Ferrara meant when he wrote that the State, in the person of Henry, “partnered [conspired?] with capitalism” (A social order? An ideological movement?) to displace one social order with another. If he meant to say that a grand conspiracy overthrew the Catholic social order, then he should have done so, and plainly. But the transition from one social order into another is not the sort of thing that has a unitary cause like “grand theft.” But the propagandist must resort to such facile narratives to hold his audience.