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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Those Who Ignore Economic History Are Doomed to Repeat It

All the talk shows this morning played the Romney clip from CPAC where he said if we elect him he will end liberalism for generations and we will enter a new era of conservatism.  For some reason this took me back to something I have been thinking for the last several weeks, which is the clear parallel between the enclosure movement in England and the loss of jobs in America. What I remembered was that in the 17th and 18th centuries, large landowners used acts of Parliament to enclose and take title to village commons in rural England.  Villagers were excluded from the enclosed lands, which were then used to raise sheep for wool.  Enclosure of the commons, which had been shared by villagers for hundreds of years, cut them off from the areas where they had grazed their livestock and thus so impoverished thousands of rural residents that they could no longer piece together enough income to avoid starvation and had to leave the land.  In America over the last 20 or 30 years, corporate America has discovered globalization and has shipped the means of production and the jobs associated with them overseas, leaving a large body of workers here with no jobs or at best some opportunities to work at bed making, toilet swabbing and burger flipping and maybe some heavy lifting to help bring in the boxes of stuff made in China

Before I started I Googled “enclosure movement” just to make sure I remembered my history.  The top of the list had a definition on which people had voted and it seemed to confirm what I remembered all these 54 years since I finished college.  The next few sites were interesting because they explained that it had all been about introducing crop rotation and efficient use of land and that it created employment.  I didn’t take time to try to check out the agendae of the sponsors of these sites but instead moved on to a learned article published at Cambridge which explained that enclosure had started as early as the 12th and extended into the 19th C and proceeded piece by piece and for various reasons and was rather complex, but that what I remembered about sheep and dispossession was essentially correct.  The next site I looked at, “10000 Birds,” started by quoting an anonymous poem about enclosure and then went on to say what I wanted to say about the parallel between enclosure and the loss of jobs in America, but more succinctly and elegantly than I ever could.

I tried one more site, an article by James Boyle in Law and Contemporary Society, Winter/Spring 2003 entitled “The Second Enclosure Movement and the Construction of the Public Domain.”  He quotes the anonymous poem:

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.
The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.
The poor and wretched don't escape
If they conspire the law to break;
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law.
The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.
Boyle writes that “The most strident critics of the enclosure movement argue that it imposed devastating costs on one segment of society, and goes on the quote Carl Polyani:

Enclosures have appropriately been called a revolution of the rich against the poor. The lords and nobles were upsetting the social order, breaking down ancient law and custom, sometimes by means of violence, often by pressure and intimidation. They were literally robbing the poor of their share in the common, tearing down the houses which, by the hitherto unbreakable force of custom, the poor had long regarded as theirs and their heirs'. The fabric of society was being disrupted. Desolate villages and the ruins of human dwellings testified to the fierceness with which the revolution raged, endangering the defences of the country, wasting its towns, decimating its population, turning its overburdened soil into dust, harassing its people and turning them from decent husbandmen into a mob of beggars and thieves. Though this happened only in patches, the black spots threatened to melt into a uniform catastrophe.  KARL POLANYI, THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION: THE POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC ORIGINS OF OUR TIME 35 (1957); see also E.P. THOMPSON, THE MAKING OF THE ENGLISH WORKING CLASS 218 (1963).

Then Boyle presents the counter arguments:

So much for the bad side of the enclosure movement.  For many economic historians, everything I have said up to now is the worst kind of sentimental bunk, romanticizing a form of life that was neither comfortable nor noble, and certainly not very egalitarian. The big point about the enclosure movement is that it worked; this innovation in property systems allowed an unparalleled expansion of productive possibilities.  By transferring inefficiently managed common land into the hands of a single owner, enclosure escaped the aptly named "tragedy of the commons." It gave incentives for large-scale investment, allowed control over exploitation, and, in general, ensured that resources could be put to their most efficient use. Before the enclosure movement, the feudal lord would not invest in drainage systems, sheep purchases, or crop rotation that might increase yields from the common -- he knew all too well that the fruits of his labor could be appropriated by others. The strong private property rights and single entity control that were introduced in the enclosure movement avoid the tragedies of overuse and underinvestment.  

With a little imagination I think I could rewrite that paragraph to reflect exactly what has happened in the American economy over the last 30 years and append a list of laws designed to abet this transfer of jobs and productive resources overseas for the benefit of the 1%.  One of my last assignments before I left the State Department in 1973 was in Commercial & Business Affairs (CBA) in the E (Economics) Bureau.  I had to do some of the staff work for the Advisory Committee on International Business Problems.  I got into some serious trouble when I wrote a paper that dared to suggest that the US Government should neither promote nor discourage foreign direct investment.  I was totally against it, but couldn’t say that without being decapitated, so I said the government should not interfere with market forces by leaning one way or the other.
I’m wondering if I have the strength to research another precedent in economic history, i.e., Spain’s failure to develop a modern economy until after WW II.  The thesis is that they had so much wealth from gold and silver brought back from the Americas that they could import everything they wanted and didn’t need to develop a domestic manufacturing sector.  The poor stayed poor and the wealthy lived the life of, here it comes, the 1%.

Boyle, by the way, was only getting warmed up when he talked about the English enclosure movement.  The “Second Enclosure” in his title refers to present day intellectual property issues.  I recommend it.  I’m interested because I plan to give a talk in April on late 19th and early 20th C painting and I want to put the text on this blog with reproductions of the paintings.  I’ve emailed the National Gallery to see if they think I need their permission and I’m waiting for their answer.

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