We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Samizdata quote of the day

“The serf first obtained chattels and then land in property; on them he won his first power, and that meant his first liberty – meaning thereby his personal liberty. His title to these things, that is, his right to appropriate them to his own exclusive use and enjoyment, and to be sustained by the power of the state in so doing, was his first step in civil liberty. It was by this movement that he ceased to be a serf. This movement has produced the great middle class of modern times; and the elements in it have been property, science and liberty. The first and chief of these, however, is property; there is no liberty without property, because there is nothing else without property on this earth.”

The Essential Essays of William Graham Sumner, “On Liberty, Society and Politics”, (Edited by Robert C. Bannister), page 247.

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8 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • The serf first obtained chattels and then land in property

    Can someone expand on this a bit, please?

  • lukas

    I can only guess as to the context, but apparently WGS is under the impression that serfs, at one point, had no right to personal property (chattels). Upon this he constructs a beautiful whiggish narrative: The miracle of property turns serfs into middle-class people with a dog, 1.3 kids and 1.9 cars.

  • This, of course is the abbreviated version. There were several intermediate steps which were omitted for brevity.

    Here in the US, the Supreme court, in the Kelo decision, has informed we serfs that our property is ours only as long as it pleases the state to let us keep it.

  • William H Stoddard

    I’m not historian enough to comment in an informed way, but I would suggest that a somewhat parallel account can be found in the historical chapters of Hilaire Belloc’s The Servile State. Belloc and Sumner weren’t quite contemporaries but I believe they overlapped, and may have been influenced by the same historical accounts.

  • and would LVT reverse that process, making us de facto leaseholders?

  • The humorist P. J. O’Rourke, in his book on Adam Smith’s On The Wealth Of Nations, had some funny things to say along these same lines.

    “Leftist critics of free markets assume that there is a fraudulent aspect to capitalism. They’re right. We tricked the feudal powers into setting us free, and we remained free by continuing to bamboozle them. We used chicanery and sharp dealing to found our cities, become rich bourgeoisie, and supply ourselves with creature comforts. We left the barbarian aristocrats in their drafty castles throwing chicken bones on the floor. ”

    “A good head for business is a middle-class invention. The ancient Greeks and Romans, for all their genius, didn’t have it. Otherwise they would have abandoned slave labor with its health benefit and pension plan burdens. They would have free the slaves, turned them into customers, and outsourced the unskilled jobs to Sogdiana and Gaul. The medieval burghers, besides becoming really free, became really smart in our present sense of the word. “The habits,” Smith wrote, “of order, œconomy and attention, to which mercantile business naturally forms a merchant, render him much fitter to execute, with profit and success, any project of improvement.” ”

  • Paul Marks

    It is not just some Whig fantasy – serfs (at least in some places) really did go through such a process.

    For example a Pope (I believe it was the only English Pope) formally declared that no master could prevent serfs marrying – or force them to marry someone they did not want to marry (in short – a serf is not a slave, and where there is one right, other can then be claimed…..).

    Serfdom was basically two things.

    You could not leave the land you born on.

    And you had to do labour service to your lord.

    But what sort of labour service – what sort EXACTLY?

    English Common Law lawyers delighted in arguing over this – and the details of what a serf had to do got more and complicated (but NOT harsher and harsher – rather the reverse).

    In the end it was much more economically senible for lords to convert labour service into cash rent (which destroys one of the big differences between free tenants and serfs).

    However, this depends on two things.

    First tenants havintg the financial means to go to court – at first at least only free tenants (not serfs) could go to court anyway. But gradually serfdom got turned into “holding land in servile tenure” (not quite the same thing).

    Also their is the military point – after overlooked by legal and economic historians.

    English lords depended on armed men – and mostly (in the late Middle Ages at least) NOT knights.

    They mostly depended on bowmen and men-at-arms (men with big farm tool like things used to cut other men to bits).

    In short the English peasantry became armed over time – had to be armed (otherwise where could lords and the King himself get their armed men from).

    People who can shoot you dead with their longbows or cut you in half with their double handed farm tool like weapons – have to be treated with some respect.

    Certainly such people are only free tenants (not serfs) at first – but serfs are men to, why let them go to waste, one can be armed and kill people as well…… it means one has more armed men, more power, but it also means……….

    This is not the Roman world – with a professional army and a unarmed population.

    The world of (at least) late Middle Ages in England is a very different place – in military terms.

    And its law comes to reflect this reality.

    It is very unwise to treat an armed man as a bit of property, and it also unwise to say that he has no property himself – to claim (for example) that one can go into his hut and take his stuff (or his daughter) if one has a mind to.

    It is not really a matter of “peasant revolts” (although there were some) – it is matter of needing every man you have got (to protect your own family – from rival lords).

    Servile unarmed peasants are simply no use for that (or for the king’s wars – of course in England there might well be different people claiming to be the rightful King anyway). And it is no good calling for the standing army and so on (as in the Roman world) – because it, basically, does not exist.

    There really is not enough research done on the Middle Ages (M.M. Poston and Alan Macfarlane spring to mind – but it is not a popular period to specialize in).

    For example the vast technological changes (for centuries the Roman world basically stayed the same in technology- or went backwards), the Middle Ages are wildly different.

    The England of 1485 was widly differenent (in just about everything) from the England of 1066.

    The technology was utterly different.

    Serfdom – after 1066 almost half the population became serfs (many were before 1066) – by 1485 (battle of Bosworth – start of the Tudors and stuff historians get interested in again) servile tenure still existed,it did till 1660, but serfdom as such was virtually unknown – WHY? HOW?

    The law was very different.

    The economy was very different.

    Yet most people think of the Middle Ages as a time of unchanging stagnation.

    Remember this development starts early – how did (for example) Henry the first become King (rather than his older brothers) after the “accidental” death of William the second?

    We are told that Henry appealed to “the English” by (for example) marrying a direct decendent of Alfred the Great and granting a charter of liberties (1100 – less than 40 years after the conquest, and a 114 years before the Great Charter). And by stressing that (unlike his brothers) he was born in England.

    But who were “the English” that Henry pitched for the support of?

    Some were landholders yes (the Conquest had not wiped them all out – as is sometimes falsely claimed), but the vast majority of landholders (in 1100) were not English (although their mothers often were by now – remember we are already dealing with second generation people).

    So who is it that Henry desperatly wants the support of?

    Not serfs (not yet – not in 1100), but not just great Norman lords either……