October 6, 2011

Interlude: Deirdre McCloskey on the Enclosure of the English Commons and Its Outcome


In an earlier post, we wondered whether pro-free market-capitalism economic historian Deirdre McCloskey, University of Illinois at Chicago Professor of Economics, History, English, and Communication, has had anything to say recently about enclosure, an early specialty of hers.

Without commenting on Jeanette Neeson’s 1993 Commoners, which Mr. Ferrara triumphantly cites as though it settles an ongoing debate of which he had shown no evidence of being cognizant when he wrote TCATL,* Professor McCloskey offered this generalization (paraphrased from our email exchange): enclosure scholars, both “optimists” and “pessimists,” generally agree that the landless, who had enjoyed wood-gathering and other communal rights, were left less well off. What the “pessimists” won’t even acknowledge, however (apparently not even in order to disagree with the “optimists”) is that all landholders, no matter how small their holdings, were better off, for they sold them at a price that reflected buyer expectation of greater productivity.

We hope Professor McCloskey will in a future book evaluate Professor Neeson’s award-winning study of this contentious historical episode (on which there is, according to Mr. Ferrara, only one morally permissible opinion). Until then, however, we have the following examples of fine prose from her 2010 Bourgeois Dignity (the second volume in a projected series of six). We believe they can help one assess Mr. Ferrara’s claim that English capitalism was built on the backs, if not the corpses, of evicted peasants.

Sector by sector the older heroes have fallen before the research of the economists and historians. Marx put great emphasis for instance on the enclosure of open fields, that is, the dissolution of the medieval agricultural community and its translation into compact, individualistic farms. He claimed that enclosure enriched the investing classes and drove workers into the hands of industrialists. Most educated people believe the tale as gospel truth, and are quite sure that a lot of industrial investment came from enclosures, and that the workforce for industrialization was “pushed off the land.”  Sellar and Yeatman capture the bits we can remember: “There was an Agricultural Revolution which was caused by the invention of turnips and the discovery that Trespassers could be Prosecuted. This was a Good Thing, too, because previously the Land has all been rather common, and it was called the Enclosure movement and was the origin of Keeping off the Grass, . . . [culminating] in the vast Royal Enclosure at Ascot.”8

By now, though, several generations of agricultural historians have argued (contrary to the Fabian theme first articulated in 1911, which followed Marx) that eighteenth-century enclosures were in many ways equitable and did not drive people out of the villages.9 True, Parliament became in the eighteenth century an executive committee of the landed classes, which made the overturning of the old forms of agriculture easier than it had been under earlier and royal supervision. Oliver Goldsmith lamenting the allegedly deserted village wrote in 1770 that “those fenceless fields the sons of wealth divide, / And even the bare-worn common is denied.” Yet contrary to the pastoralism of the poem—which as usual reflects aristocratic traditions in poetry back to Horace and Theocritus more than evidence from the English countryside—the commons was usually purchased rather than stolen from the goose. One can point with sympathy to the damaging of numerous poor holders of traditional rights without also believing what appears to be false—that industrialization depended in any important way on the taking of rights from cottagers to gather firewood on the commons. Industrialization, after all, occurred first in regions to the north and west, mainly enclosed long before, such as Lancashire or Warwickshire, and especially (as Eric Jones pointed out) in areas  bad for agriculture, not in the fertile East Midlands or East Anglia or the South—the places where the parliamentary acts of the eighteenth century did transform many villages, though none “deserted.” In such freshly enclosed areas, I repeat, the local populations increased after enclosure**
The result of enclosure was a bit more efficient agriculture. Perhaps the efficiency is why enclosure increased employment, because it raised a little the quantity demanded for now more productive workers. But was enclosure therefore, to take the optimistic view, the hero of the new industrial age? By no means. Nothing much would have changed had English agriculture, like agricultures on the Continent, resisted enclosure until a century after industrialization.10 . . . Improved road surfaces around and through the enclosing villages might have been more important than the rearranging of scattered plots on which most historical attention has been lavished (straightening and resurfacing of roads accompanied enclosure, but the effect is seldom stressed). . . .***
8 [Walter C.] Sellar and [R. J.] Yeatman. 1931 [1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England. Bound with And All This.) New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1932], p. 94.
9 [Deirdre N.] McCloskey 1972a [“The Enclosure of the Open Fields: Preface to a Study of Its Impact on the Efficiency of English Agriculture in the Eighteenth Century.” Journal of Economic History 32:15-35] and works cited there.
10 [Giovanni] Federico 2005 [Feeding the World: An Economic History of Agriculture, 1800-2000. Princeton: Princeton University Press], p. 151.

* We remind readers of Mr. Ferrara’s grand thesis:
. . . 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).
We discussed this example of judiciously compressed thought here. We were recently struck by its ideological consonance with the following description of enclosure by Marxist economics professor (University at Buffalo) Paul Zarembka:
. . . the process of separation of laborers from any means of production so that they become free wage-laborers for the purposes of capitalist exploitation. This process is not a natural development, but rather the result of violent confrontations.
Perhaps these gentlemen should consider “meeting up” near Wall Street to consider a common course of action. (Friends of the late Murray Rothbard may recall one of his famous warnings: "Don't give 'em any ideas!")
** We also remind readers of our previous citation of Murray Rothbard on this very point:
It was population growth . . . that was wrecking mercantilist Europe. Population growth was the reason for the rise of able-bodied beggars and thieves in eighteenth-century England. There was no work for them to do. It was the rise of capitalism—the advance of capital to provide them with jobs, the expansion of the market to produce cheap goods for the masses—that not only enormously increased the standard of living of the masses but also provided jobs for these increasingly “excess” people.
*** Deirdre N. McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2010, 172-173.