Privatizing The Commons

"Virtually everything President Bush is doing to America is, at some level, related to privatization of our commons. Today we are witnessing the middle game portion of the Corporate Takeover of Everything Agenda. It scares me to imagine what the end-game will look like."
-Scott Silver, 2003

In 2006 the Democrats narrowly defeated Bush's attempts at selling 300,000 acres of public forest land to private interests. The reason given was to simply raise money to fill a budget gap.

"It kind of reminds me of selling off the 'back 40' to pay the rent. It's short-term thinking."

This certainly isn't the first time that Republicans have gone after the Commons, and it won't be the last.

"After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back."
- James G. Watt, 1983

Starting with the Sagebrush Rebellion, continuing with Reagan's Interior Secretary, James Watt, and the Wise Use Movement of the late 80's and early 90's, and finally with the rise of the "free market environmentalism" the Republican base keeps coming and coming for undeveloped land, and they will never stop.
The pro-privatization crowd is very open with their reasoning and logic:

Some object to privatization because they believe that our national "crown jewels" (however defined) are sacred natural treasures and that no price tag can or should be attached to them. Well, one is welcome to one's beliefs, but value is subjective. Land is worth only what people will pay for it.
If there is more money to be made by turning the Grand Canyon over to the Walt Disney Co. rather than to an eco-sensitive tourism cooperative, it simply means that the public demand for Disney's services at the Grand Canyon is greater than the public's demand for Deep Green Trail Services Inc.

This is a philosophy that sees absolutely no value in anything that can't be turned into a buck. I feel no shame in saying that these people cannot be reasoned with. They can only be fought.
How can I say that with so much certainty? How can I be certain that I am right? The reason I have no doubts is because I know a little about history, and I would like to share it with you.
But to do this right, we need to go all the way back to the feudal system of England as it was coming out of the Dark Ages.

The New Tragedy Of The Commons

They hang the man and flog the woman
That steal the goose from off the common,
But let the greater villain loose
That steals the common from the goose.
— English folk poem, ca. 1764

As any student of law can tell you, the root of all American Constitutional law is English Common Law. And the root of English Common Law is the Magna Carta. This 13th Century document is so important that it has been repeatedly cited in U.S. Supreme Court rulings as recently as 1983.

The Carta De Foresta

That much you probably already know. What you most likely don't know is that the Magna Carta had a companion document known as the Charter of the Forest. In this almost forgotten legal document was the basis of The Commons. For example:

[12] Every free man may henceforth without being prosecuted make in his wood or in land he has in the forest a mill, a preserve, a pond, a marl-pit, a ditch, or arable outside the covert in arable land, on condition that it does not harm any neighbour.

[17] These liberties concerning the forests we have granted to everybody, saving to archbishops, bishops, abbots, priors, earls, barons, knights, and other persons, ecclesiastical and secular, Templars and Hospitallers, the liberties and free customs, in forests and outside, in warrens and other things, which they had previously.[...]

For centuries the Open Field System was the dominant economic agriculture system of England (and most other places in Europe). Resources were shared in the community and the community regulated its uses. This economic system existed from the neolithic period of human development all the way up to the middle ages. In other words, it is the opposite of the privatizing system being pushed through today. Unlike today's economic system, this community-based, sharing of resources is the default economic system of the human condition.

So what brought this system to an end? Contrary to what some would have you believe, it didn't die on its own. It wasn't gradually and efficiently replaced by today's capitalist system.
No, it was knifed in the back. And the hundreds of thousands that depended on this system had their livelihoods destroyed in the process, leaving a huge swath of the population homeless, penniless, and without means to feed their families.
Like most economic upheavals in history, this can be traced to a particular war. In this case, the Anglo-Scottish War of 1541.

I'm Henry The Eighth, I Am

When Henry VIII was crowned King in 1509 the country's treasury was in fine shape. But Henry had a love for starting wars with France and Scotland, and it quickly depleted the treasury. By the 1530's the country was nearly broke. It just so happens that 1531 was the year that Henry VIII declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England, and in 1535 Henry had Thomas Cromwell visiting all the monasteries in the nation in order to a) inventory all their assets, and b) spread propaganda against the monks and nuns (using such terms as sinful "hypocrites" and "sorcerers").
[note: Cromwell was a disgusting toady of Henry's who's life ended in a deliberately botched private execution]
The following year the Dissolution of the Monasteries became law, as their property was confiscated. Abbots who resisted were executed. Around 800 of these institutions were seized. Henry didn't get as much revenue from seizing the assets of the monasteries as he thought he would, so he turned around and sold the land to the wealthy Tudor gentry at bargain basement prices.
[note: Every instance of privatizing public assets that I have ever read about, led to those assets being sold at pennies on the dollar to the politically connected wealthy. It's a good bet that this will happen every single time.]
The abbeys were one of the primary sources of charity and medical care in the country, thus gutting the weak safety net that was in place. The loss of them came at an extremely bad time. Henry VIII, now flush with quick cash went on an empire building spree.

Ireland circa 1530

For two centuries the Irish had been driving the English back towards Dublin, so that by 1541 the English controlled only an area of 20 miles in radius known simply as The Pale. But that year Henry crowned himself King of Ireland against the expressed wishes of the Pope. Combined with the process of buying off Irish Lords, Ireland soon become part of the English Empire (although not without frequent, bloody revolts).
However, Scotland was a different story. Henry was determined to convert them to Protestants, even if he had to kill every last one of them. When war broke out in 1541 Henry used his newly flush treasury to field an army to do just that. The problem was that Scotland didn't like the idea of England telling them how to worship, and created an alliance with France to help them fight the English invaders.
The war drug on year after year. Henry's armies used a scorthed-earth tactic known as "Rough Wooing" in which hundreds of villages and hamlets were burnt to the ground. At the same time Henry was conducting a full-scale invasion of France.
All of this war is expensive, and by 1542 the treasury was in danger of depletion yet again. Henry was faced with a tough choice - raise taxes or end the empire building? Raising taxes was not a choice because the English gentry had balked at paying for war three different times during the 1520's. Like George Bush and most modern politicians, he was loath to do either, and instead chose a third way - debasement of the currency.


Known simply as The Great Debasement, Henry did what is the modern equivalent of adding zeros to today's fiat currency. In 1542 One Pound contained 6.4 ounces of silver. By 1551 One Pound contained less than an ounce of silver.

For King Henry it created a temporary increase in the amount of cash on hand to fund his destruction and occupation of southern Scotland. For the poor, all they saw was rapidly increasing prices without a similar increase in wages. And for the wealthy landlords they saw a decrease in the value of the rents they charge.

Enclosure: The process whereby open land or common land was parcelled up into privately owned blocks or fields.

But the wealthy gentry had a way out. For more than a century the price of sheep's wool had been increasing because of strong demand on the continent (i.e. turning exports into hard currency). What stood in the way of this solution for the wealthy landlords was thousands of subsistence farmers on their lands.
But that was easy enough to fix - the farmers were evicted, the former farming lands were enclosed with ditches and hedges, and then the fields were turned to pasture for the sheep. By as early as 1516 this was becoming a problem. Thomas More wrote in his book Utopia:

But I do not think that this necessity of stealing arises only from hence; there is another cause of it, more peculiar to England.' 'What is that?' said the Cardinal: 'The increase of pasture,' said I, 'by which your sheep, which are naturally mild, and easily kept in order, may be said now to devour men and unpeople, not only villages, but towns; for wherever it is found that the sheep of any soil yield a softer and richer wool than ordinary, there the nobility and gentry, and even those holy men, the abbots not contented with the old rents which their farms yielded, nor thinking it enough that they, living at their ease, do no good to the public, resolve to do it hurt instead of good. They stop the course of agriculture, destroying houses and towns, reserving only the churches, and enclose grounds that they may lodge their sheep in them.

When The Great Debasement happened, this process was accelerated many times over. What's more, the wealthy were no longer satisfied with simply enclosing their own common land, but started enclosing land that didn't belong to them - common fens and marshes, moors and other "wastes". These were areas not owned by anyone, but that tenant farmers used for their animals to graze (along with the stubble of an open field after a harvest).
In other words this was outright theft by the powerful and wealthy of community owned land, land in which they had the right to use under the Charter of the Forest. These enclosures turned common land into owned land, whereas field enclosures only segregated land that was already owned. Access to these lands were critical to the marginal farmer, and it is no surprise when those farmers began revolting.

The Levellers: Part I

Enclosure riots began as early as the 1520's, but were usually modest in size and rarely caused violence (other than the knocking down of hedges and filling in of ditches that enclosed common lands). However, things changed for the worst in 1549, when the first round of full-scale enclosure riots began.
By 1549 the economic situation in Britain had become intolerable. Poverty rates which were normally around 20% had spiked to over 50%. And with the charity network gutted by Henry a decade earlier, these had become desperate times for many families.
The first major outbreak of violence was Kett's Rebellion during the summer of that year. Robert Kett became the unwilling leader of a rebellion of 15,000 angry farmers, almost completely unarmed, who stormed the town of Norwich after tearing down enclosures for several weeks. They amazingly beat back an attack of 14,000 of the King's militia. However, the King then sent a larger army with better leadership, which defeated the rebels in a pitched battle. Robert Kett was hung over the side of the Norwich castle, where his death was strung out over a period of several days.

Defeating Kett's rebellion did not stop periodic uprising against enclosures of the Commons. Nor did the end of the Great Debasement stop the enclosing of common land. Between 1570 and 1620 nearly 1/3 of all the land in England changed hands - from the poor and commons to the wealthy. By some accounts, 3/4ths to 9/10ths of the tenant farmers on some estates were evicted in the late medieval period.
All this enclosing of common land led to the complete depopulation of hundreds of villages and hamlets. In all, about 1,000 towns and villages ceased to exist during this period. With Scotland and Ireland coming under the thumb of the English crown, they too suffered from the same trend. Families gave up their children because they couldn't afford to feed them. People sold themselves into indentured servitude. So many thousands of families were being made homeless and destitute, with no means to support themselves, it led to skyrocketing crime rates.

The enclosure riots peaked in 1607 with the infamous Midland Revolt. Thousands of people, including women and children, took part in pulling down hedges and filling in ditches. When the local militia flat refused when called to put down revolt, the local landlords used their servants and armed thugs they hired.

The Royal Proclamation was read twice. The rioters continued in their actions and the gentry and their forces charged. A pitched battle ensued. 40-50 were killed and the ringleaders were hanged and quartered.
No memorial to the event or to those killed exists.

The Government Responds

Gradually the government responded to the social crisis they had helped create. Because the enclosing of common land was creating social instability, and, even more importantly, it was shrinking the tax base (because the homeless couldn't pay taxes), anti-enclosure laws were passed. However, they were poorly enforced and corruptly administered. Eventually the laws were simply repealed. The government was simply unable, or unwilling, to stand up to the wealthy, privileged class that had caused so much suffering.
The other method of dealing with the steadily increasing numbers of poor was stricter laws.

1495: Vagrants to be punished in the stocks for 3 days.
1531: Vagrants to be whipped.
1536: Vagrants make to work on jobs like road repairs.
1547: Vagrants could be forced to work as slaves (this law was canceled in 1549 because it was considered too harsh).
1572: Vagrants over 14 were to be whipped and have a hole made in their right ear the first time they were caught. Caught again, they could be put in prison, even hanged.
1576: Houses of Correction (Bridewells) set up where vagrants were forced to live and work.
1597: Vagrants whipped and sent back to county where they had last lived. Vagrants who kept getting caught were sent overseas to work in the colonies.

The last law listed eventually became a popular method of dealing with the flood of homeless poor. As the British Empire expanded, shipping the homeless poor off to undeveloped lands in America, and later Australia, became the default method of social administration. The colony of Georgia's early population can be largely attributed to this law.
In 1697 an act was passed requiring the poor to wear a "badge" of red or blue cloth on the right shoulder with an embroidered letter "P" and the initial of their parish.

Of course the government wasn't totally heartless. The latter part of the 16th Century saw the first Poor Laws - the first efforts in the western world at setting up a welfare state. In 1572 the first poor tax was introduced. The services rendered from the Poor Laws were exclusively reserved to those who were unable to take care of themselves such as children, the old, the crippled and sick.
In 1601 the Elizabethan Poor Law was enacted.

It made provision:

* To board out (making a payment to families willing to accept them) those young children who were orphaned or whose parents could not maintain them,
* to provide materials to "set the poor on work"
* To offer relief to people who were unable to work -- mainly those who were "lame, impotent, old, blind", and
* "The putting out of children to be apprentices"

In today's world this was a rather pathetic attempt at dealing with an impoverished society. But in 1601 this was radical thinking far ahead of its time.

The Levellers: Part II

In 1642, the English Civil War began (although fighting in Scotland and Ireland began earlier). Since the monarchy, with the aid of the Star Chamber, was the only institution that was slowing down enclosures, the eventual victory by the lords in Parliament dramatically sped up enclosures around the country.

The term levellers was used to describe the enclosure rioters for "leveling hedges". However, in November 1647, the term Levellers was used to describe a political movement among London's politicians.

The Levellers were an informal alliance of agitators and pamphleteers who came together during the English Civil War (1642-1648) to demand constitutional reform and equal rights under the law. Levellers believed all men were born free and equal and possessed natural rights that resided in the individual, not the government. They believed that each man should have freedom limited only by regard for the freedom of others. They believed the law should equally protect the poor and the wealthy. The Levellers were the social libertarians of the day (or classic liberals). "Leveller" was a term of abuse, coined by their opponents to exaggerate the threat of their ideas.

The Leveller politicians had only the most indirect connections to their namesakes, and their movement was crushed just three years later with a series of executions and assassinations.

By 1650 the rise in wool prices had ended, but by this time the fate of the Commons in Britain was sealed. There would be more enclosures and more families made homeless. The politicians in London would eventually openly side with the wealthy and institute a series of formal enclosure laws, which ended in 1801.



Reading the words from Magna

Reading the words from Magna Carta seem to suggest that the land was not common land but land which belonged to the person who wanted the pond, etc on it. I have not checked but the preservation of commoner's rights was the Statute of Merton 1235. When common land was enclosed the Lord of the Manor was required to make sure that sufficient commoners' rights remained. This was confirmed by the Commons Act 1285 which has just (time relatively) been repealed by the Common Act 2006. My Common Lands Handbook covers this and much more.

English Common Law

Thanks for the feedback. Judging from Wikipedia it appears that the Statute of Merton was used to destroy the Commons in England.

In January 1550, in Edward VI's reign, long after the Statute had fallen out of use, it was revived under John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, to enable lords to enclose their land at their own discretion - out of keeping with the traditional Tudor anti-enclosure attitude.

The Commons Act 1285 seems to be much more inclined to preserve the Commons.

I disagree with this paragraph

Of course the government wasn't totally heartless. The latter part of the 16th Century saw the first Poor Laws - the first efforts in the western world at setting up a welfare state. In 1572 the first poor tax was introduced. The services rendered from the Poor Laws were exclusively reserved to those who were unable to take care of themselves such as children, the old, the crippled and sick. In 1601 the Elizabethan Poor Law was enacted.





While it's true these were the first poor laws in English Common Law, they were NOT the first poor laws in Western Civilization, nor were they the first Welfare State. Rome saw a welfare state arise cyclically throughout the history of the empire and republic, usually centered around centralized production of water, bread, and salt. The Greeks, too, had a significant welfare state based on debt slavery (and such a good one that we got the quote "Better to be a slave in Athens than a King". And of course, the Egyptians had their own welfare state based on work and beer.



Moral hazards would not exist in a system designed to eliminate fraud.

Maximum jobs, not maximum profits.

Need for Poor Law

Three possible drivers for the the Poor Laws of the 1500s were:

1 losses due to early enclosures of common land, ie of commoners'rights over common land in some areas - common land provided food and fuels;

2 the loss of the monasteries, ie Henry VIII's policy - hitherto they had provided some charitable relief for the sick and poor in earlier centuries;

3 the decline and or movements of the population due to plagues.

Well done

I sometimes wonder if free-marketeers really believe their mantra or whether they are simply grasping at "moral justifications for greed", to paraphrase Galbraith.