Or The Real Story of the American Dream

Have you ever heard of Enclosure? Roughly it comes down to this. In England, some of the land used to be common property. That land was called the Commons. Part of it was a wasteland, or what we would call nature today, but part of it was also farmland. People who did not own land could graze some cattle, grow food or collect firewood in these places. This ensured that the less affluent part of the population was independent to some extent: they were not completely dependent on employers who owned land or factories.

At some point, some people came up with the idea of turning this common property into private property. Think of the period from 1700 to about 1850. Doing this is referred to as enclosure.

The common story about enclosure goes like this:

Land owned by individuals can be used more efficiently than common land. Therefore, a system of private land ownership has huge advantages. After all, if something is common property, it can be profitable for users to treat it with less care. If my own bike makes a strange noise, I quickly check what’s wrong to prevent any further injury. If a rental bike makes the same noise, I might think: I can still reach my destination with that.

Something similar applies to land: an owner of a pasture does not allow too many cattle to graze on it, because then it will be overgrazed and fewer sheep can be kept on it next year. Over a longer period, overgrazing yields less.

However, if I let my cattle graze on a common piece of pasture, it’s less attractive for me to behave responsibly. If I graze some extra sheep, I will earn more money or have some extra wool. The costs of the damage to the pasture will be shared among the users of the common land.

Further, private ownership will make it more attractive to do long-term investments such as drainage or fertilization.

The problem that common land is not always used responsibly is called The Tragedy of The Commons. The solution seems simple: turn commons into private property. And that’s what happened on a large scale. Not only in England but there are all kinds of examples in other countries. Colonization went hand in hand with introducing private ownership of land in many countries.

You can read more about this history in the book Anatomy of Escape (Carson, 2019) and The Village Laborer (Hammond and Hammond, 1912). These books provide a very different perspective on the enclosures and highlight how the landless were disadvantaged.

An official procedure for an enclosure existed. Someone could put forward a proposal to privatize certain parts of the commons. This could then be objected to, for example by current users. However, doing this was quite difficult. Illiterate farmers needed to understand the procedure and respond to the proposal. They had to travel to London and stay there for a while. The right to vote was based on the amount of land ownership. Large landowners therefore in fact decided on the enclosures.

Therefore enclosures be regarded as a smooth form of cooperation between the government and large landowners. You may believe that the intentions were good. Enclosure made more modern forms of agriculture possible. You may also think it was a trick to make more money and gain power over the common people, who previously had a certain amount of independence.

Carson points out that a clear system of property is attractive to rulers. If it is not entirely clear to a government who actually owns the land, taxation and imposing rules is rather complex. This consideration may also have contributed to the fact that governments worldwide have always preferred private ownership of land.

In addition to the procedure, both books contain a few interesting old quotes that give us more insight into the good intentions that everyone had.

In 1773 a certain Arburnoth wrote that the commons caused the people to become lazy. If you offer them work, they will tell you, that they must go to look up their sheep…

In 1794 a certain Bishton wrote a report on the state of agriculture in Shropshire, an area close to Birmingham.

The use of common land by workers tends to make them feel independent the result of the enclosures should be that the labourers will work every day in the year, their children will be put out to labour early, and that subordination of the lower ranks of society which in the present times is so much wanted, would be thereby considerably secured.

John Clark stated in 1807 that the enclosures would lead to a better availability of labour by making it impossible to be lazy.

Should we agree with these people? Is laziness something bad? Are people who don’t like hard work bad? Is it wrong that people can gain some indecency by having cattle and collecting firewood in the forest?

There are many things to criticize about the enclosures.

First, they obviously took place against the will of the land’s users, at the request of the large landowners.

Further, whether the commons were managed as badly as suggested is doubtful. There were all kinds of agreements about the number of animals that people were allowed to graze, and there were agreements that sick animals were not allowed to graze, to prevent diseases from spreading.

Various sources indicate that it was also or perhaps even mainly a goal to chase lower classes into the factories.

But most importantly: the result was not that the users could use their land more efficiently and thus have a better life. As a result, the large landowners took ownership of the land and were able to drive out the previous users of their land. Perhaps production got more efficient, but the benefits were certainly not reaped by the original users. Perhaps they could find a job on the land. Perhaps the landowners allowed them to collect some firewood,  but only if they paid for it.

I think we should discuss two questions in light of this history:

First, what should we think of wage labour? Should we go back to the good old days and restore the commons and make everything we need ourselves so that we can be independent again?

Secondly, if we believe that the enclosures have been wrong, how should the descendants of the commoners be compensated?

Let’s start with the first question. We don’t think there is anything wrong with wage labour. By specializing, we can become very good at something. That leads to prosperity. We do not oppose all efficient forms of agriculture either. The point is that there must be a choice. In the days of the commoners, the choice was between tending your own sheep on the commons and gathering wood or earning money from a boss and buying your food and fuel. And that meant that labour was scarce and therefore relatively expensive. If the farmer or factory paid too little or was otherwise annoying, you could choose to live entirely or partly from the opportunities offered by the commons.

Translated to today there should be something similar. Anyone who earns little in the supermarket or the factory or is dissatisfied for some other reason should have the opportunity to find a place to start a small company for themselves. The supermarket employee should find a place for a vegetable stand or a snack trolley. The factory worker should find a piece of land to build his own workshop with some like-minded people. Perhaps the supermarket or the factory is more efficient. If the boss of the supermarket and the factory come up with a good proposal, people would be willing to work for them. But there should be a real choice.

Economist and philosopher Karl Widerquist speaks of The power to say no. He argues that people who do not own some natural resources have no choice. They have to sell their labour to the people who own the natural resources. Or they have to marry someone who owns natural resources. Widerquist’s solution is a basic income. This basic income is intended as compensation for the fact that people no longer have access to the natural resources that people need to survive. And it ensures that people have The power to say no. If you look up Widerquist you will see that he has written a lot of interesting things on this subject. And you can also find all kinds of podcasts where he tells his story.

To be free we do not need to restore enormous commons. We will need some, maybe more than today. Certain freedoms require commons. We should just be able to take a walk on the beach. We should be able to sail our boat to Europe or China without anyone stopping us. We should be able to travel overland to our family without too much expense. That is only possible if we accept that certain parts of the world are accessible to everyone. But in the case of land on which you produce food, run a business or build a highway, private property can be the best solution. This works well as long as everyone can dispose of their share.

This might be the right place to answer the second question. How do we compensate the descendants of those who have been wronged in the past, of those who were driven off the commons?

Finding the right way to compensate them would be complicated. We could try to track them down and then try to determine the extent to which they have suffered damage. We could set a certain amount that descendants of the commoners should receive from the descendants of the large landowners. Just as we could set an amount that descendants of slaves should receive from the descendants of the people who had slaves work for them.

This would clearly be inconvenient and, moreover, leads to a strange kind of lottery. Some poor people will suddenly receive a nice amount because they are descendants of, for example, commoners who have been robbed of their land. Other poor people don’t get anything. People would be punished because their ancestors did something wrong. Not a good idea to organize it this way. How then?

The biggest problem, even today, is the lack of natural resources, such as land. Poverty is not because poor people are helpless and rich people don’t pay enough taxes. Most of those who can dispose of their share of natural resources can take care of themselves very well. The moral of natural resources it is very simple: they are a gift from nature, so everyone is equally entitled to them.

By stating this we emphatically do not mean that we should not help people who need it. But we must do first things first. If our place on earth is priceless, it makes sense that many people struggle to make ends meet. And if we help them with some form of redistribution, our help will be paid directly to their landlords, the owners of the earth. We have to solve that first.

How? Theoretically, we could physically share natural resources. We could claim our places on Earth. A very small part of Amsterdam or a much larger part of Northwest Spain. But that raises all sorts of practical objections. And that is why it could be helpful to solve it with a basic income that allows everyone to have their share of the gifts of nature. By paying for it from the revenues from a land value tax, people who want to use more of nature’s gifts are compensating those who are willing to give some of their shares. So it is not a tax to pay for extra bureaucracy and, but only a solution to enable anyone who wants to have his share of nature’s gifts without paying for it.

This system would of course be a big step forward, especially for the less wealthy people. Would it help you? Do you rent houses? Do you own a house? Are you having a hard time finding affordable housing? How cool would it be if you could claim your place on Earth? Because that’s the problem at hand. If you have access to a building plot, it is quite possible to set up a house there. And for those who like efficiency: it is also possible to have a flat built with a somewhat larger group of people. Having your place on earth, that’s what it’s all about.

And those who want to live as the commoners did could do so in this system. Together with some like-minded people, you then spend your basic income on a large piece of land that you share. You can decide for yourself how you want to do this. Everyone an equal number of sheep in the pasture? Or do you take care of the sheep and I arrange the firewood? Do we pay each other or do we arrange everything with a closed exchange?

If you can’t work it out together, you can eventually leave your community and use your piece of land differently, alone or together with others. That’s freedom. That is what the descendants of the commoners and also the descendants of slaves must demand. Everyone has their fair share of the earth and the opportunity to live there in freedom and to work with whomever they want. Nobody should be dependent on landlords, bosses or rulers.

In such a world, people again have the perspective to make something of their lives. Of course, even today some people manage to set up a thriving business. But land ownership is a huge determinant of your chance of success. If you don’t own land and have to pay sky-high rent every month, it’s not easy to start your own shop or any kind of business. When we are liberated from that, it allows us to become our own boss again.

This vision of freedom is discussed in Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War by Eric Foner. The American Dream was not about some becoming multimillionaires. The dream was that ordinary people could work for a boss for a few years and where able to save some money. And then they could buy a small farm or set up some other business. This was possible because plenty of land was available. The American Dream was about ordinary people who had the opportunity to become independent.

If we could have access to land more easily, we may be able to bring the true American Dream back to life. And that dream does not mean that a few people become rich by inventing Facebook or Tesla. That dream means that normal people who want to have the opportunity to one day have their own house, farm, shop or workshop and not depend all their lives on the jobs that bosses offer.

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