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Brian (Micklethwait) and I chat about how lucky we are to NOT live in the Middle Ages

Brian and I recorded a couple of conversations which remained unpublished at the time of this death. This is the first.

Any comments – which would be gratefully received – are probably best left here on Samizdata.

Interesting and significant (probably) to see Brian’s influence all over the preceding post. My apologies to anyone reading this who didn’t know him and feels left out.

11 comments to Brian (Micklethwait) and I chat about how lucky we are to NOT live in the Middle Ages

  • Paul Marks

    The Middle Ages are a long period – traditionally in Britain (or at least England) 1066 (William the Bastard) to 1485 (coming to power of Henry Tudor) is described as the “Middle Ages”. The dates are fairly arbitrary – but one has to draw lines somewhere.

    The society of 1485 was very different from the society of 1066 – for example both slavery and serfdom were essentially unknown in England in 1485, they were also essentially unknown in France by this time (thanks to Louis X – who abolished slavery and broke the back of serfdom).

    Was life for most people worse in 1485 than it is today? Yes, but one can exaggerate the difference – for example if one got past childhood (a lot of people did NOT) then life expectancy was not that short.

    Indeed London in 1485 was more liveable than it became in later centuries (say 1800) – when the expansion of the population overwhelmed water supply and waste disposal, and the sheer number of households meant that the coal smoke would have choked people with weak lungs (such as myself) – especially when it mixed with fog (the infamous London “smog” – the mixture of coal smoke and fog), partly due to just how many people later lived in London – and partly due to the geography of London.

    As for the Middle Ages versus Classical times – the Romans understood water supply and waste disposal better than Medieval people did, but the Romans had mass slavery – and the Middle Ages did not.

    Political and religious ideas.

    Dissent from Roman Catholic doctrines was not allowed in the Middle Ages – there was religious debate, but legal religious debate was within a narrow framework.

    In politics – one gets a few pro Republican tracts produced in Italian city states, but most political thought takes the institution of monarchy for granted.

    Monarchy yes – but NOT the unlimited monarchy of the Roman Empire. A “Medieval” King was expected to respect the fundamental laws (the law was NOT whatever the King said it was), the powers of the King was limited – this has been formally accepted as far back as Charles the Bald of France in 877 AD (Edict of Quierzy).

    A King of France accepted that they did NOT have the right to (for example) take land from one family and give it to another family, or to change the doctrines of the Christian Church, their power was limited in various other ways – and this was typical of a “Medieval” King.

    Taxation was a fraction of what it had been in the late (post Diocletian) Roman Empire – when taxes reached modern level (i.e. close to half the economy).

    Even counting Church taxes (tithes) the average person in 1485 would have looked with baffled horror at the level of taxation the late Roman Empire, or today.

  • Paul Marks

    As for the best King of the Medieval period in England – most likely Henry the First (rather than Henry the Third) – the first Henry ruled reasonably well for 35 years (but his son died in a ship wreak – which led to Civil War after his death), whereas Henry III was weak – weakness is fatal in a King (as can be seen with such later monarchs as Louis XVI in France and Nicholas II in Russia – weakness invites revolt and chaos), and there was war in England under Henry III – although, YES, for a long period his reign was O.K.

    It is fashionable to attack Simon de Monfort today because he was anti Jewish – but then everyone was anti Jewish, the enemy of Simon (Edward – son of Henry III) was more anti Jewish than Simon was.

    The establishment of Parliament was a real achievement (I agree with Patrick on this) – one must not judge the Parliament of the past by Parliament now.

    Today Parliament is essentially part of the government – ministers come from Parliament and the members of Parliament are PAID (i.e. they are “tax eaters” as it were).

    The Parliament of past ages was made up of people who were there to limit the government (the King’s government) – not to be the government.

    It should be remembered that monarchs attended ministerial meetings till George the First in the 18th century – he did not attend because he found the English language difficult, this led to the system revolving around a “Prime Minister” (the term was originally an insult) – the first one being Sir Robert Walpole.

    Walpole did not govern badly – apart from his censorship of the theatre, but overall the new system of government has not turned out entirely well.

    Certainly the state has been on the rise in Britain since about 1870 – not good.

  • Paul Marks

    I notice you go on from the Middle Ages into later centuries.

    Yes – the England of Charles the Second (Charles II) was a freer place than the England of Charles the First (Charles I) – so although the rule of Cromwell was much more oppressive for ordinary people than the rule of Charles the First (although, perhaps, more efficient – and efficiency in government does mean less money wasted), it “worked out in the end”.

    The Revolution of 1688 did indeed lead to the end of such things as censorship, and to the triumph of the rule of law – personified in Chief Justice Sir John Holt (Chief Justice from 1689 to 1710).

    But in the middle of the 18th century there is a terrible regression in thought – with Sir William Blackstone inventing the Divine Right of Parliament – the idea that Parliament could do anything it felt like, violating the basic rules of natural justice.

    There is also the rise of the philosophy of David Hume (although that had more influence in the 19th century than in his own 18th century) – with its denial of natural law and natural rights (and, even more radically, the denial of human personhood – the soul, the reasoning “I”), in some ways this was similar to the ideas of Thomas Hobbes in the mid 1600s, and it was also similar to the philosophy of Jeremy Bentham at the end of the 18th century and the start of the 19th century.

    The American Revolution and the Constitution of the United States (the Bill of Rights and so on) and the late State Constitutions (going all the way up to the Constitution of Florida in 1968 – which also had a Bill of Rights and also has Constitutional restrictions on TAXATION) might well be described as a rejection of the ideas of Thomas (“Tyranny is but the name of Sovereignty”) Hobbes, Sir William Blackstone, David Hume and Jeremy (13 Departments of State) Bentham.

    If a person wishes to see what the ideas of Hobbes, Blackstone, Hume and Bentham lead to – then look around you, the unlimited government (in both taxation and spending and regulations) that we have in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland today – and it is, most likely, going to get even worse before it gets any better.

    As for the United States – the philosophers and legal thinkers admired by the American Founding Fathers are almost forgotten today.

    How many American universities teach the legal ideas of Sir John Holt? Or the philosophical ideas of Thomas Reid (the arch opponent of David Hume), few universities indeed. Once it was many – now it is hardly any at all.

    The Constitution of the United States and the Constitutions of the 50 States are so often disregarded or twisted, because the legal and philosophical thought upon which they are based, is no longer taught.

    In terms of education the United States is no better than the United Kingdom – both are utterly dreadful in terms of the ideas (legal and philosophical – for law and philosophy are linked) that are taught in schools and universities.

  • Paul Marks

    As for when freedom was at its peak…..

    In England if I had to pick a date it would be 1869 (“but what about…..” – yes in some ways freedom improves even in the 1960s for example the end to the censorship of the theatre introduced by Walpole – but ON BALANCE freedom starts to decline, the state starts to rise, in about 1870).

    But in Scotland there was no Poor Law Tax (in most of Scotland) before 1845 – and there was no income tax (in England or Scotland – or Wales or Ireland) before Sir Robert Peel reintroduced it (to fund his Free Trade policy) at the start of the 1840s.

    For the record, national taxation (as a proportion of the economy) reaches its low point in the United Kingdom in 1874. That means all national taxes, put together, as a proportion of the economy. But the situation is complicated by some places (most places) having local government Board Schools from 1870 onwards – although some places (such as my own home town of Kettering) did not have Board Schools till after the Act of 1891.

    In the United States – it depends…

    For a non slave State 1860 might be the peak of liberty (apart from in Massachusetts – which set up a Prussian style education system in the 1850s). But obviously NOT for a State that had slavery.

  • Paul Marks

    Brian was quite right (and so were you Patrick) about Germany being “tactically brilliant and strategically dreadful” in the World Wars.

    Tactically they were head and shoulders above the British – but the Germany strategy in both World Wars (yes – the 1st World War, not just the 2nd) was “we are going to conquer everyone” – which is barking mad, when one considers the size of their opponents. Germany was like a man who goes into a bar and attacks a group of bigger men – at first he does well (one does not expect a smaller man to suddenly punch one in the face), but when the group of larger men recover from their shock… And “Hollywood rules” do not apply in a real fight – if you fight a group of men, they are going to “pile on” you, they are not going to fight you one at a time.

    Sometimes just their physical size – for example Adolf Hitler was told (correctly) that Leningrad backed on to a lake, so he ordered that (rather than marching into Leningrad in 1941 – which the Germans could have done) the city be isolated. Have a look at the sheer size of Lake Ladoga – it was vastly bigger than little Adolf from Linz could grasp. There was no way that Leningrad could really be “cut off” or “isolated”.

    “If you think everything is big in Texas – then you are in for a shock if you ever have to deal with Russia, things are much bigger there”.

    Brian (and yourself Patrick) are also correct that in both World Wars it is INDUSTRIAL PRODUCTION that buries Germany.

    British industry in both World Wars is more efficient that Germany industry (in spite of all the slave labour the Germans used – and they started that in the 1st World War, it was not an invention of the 2nd World War) – that Austrian Artillery Officer Ludwig Von Mises (also known as a rather good economist) wrote a book on just how bad German “War Socialism” was in the First World War – the English translation is called “Nation, State and Economy”.

    American industry was more efficient that British industry – and dwarfed it, especially in the 2nd World War. Ironically many of the controls that the Roosevelt Administration had applied in the 1930s were taken off in the 2nd World War and companies such as Ford largely managed their own affairs (under Mr Henry Ford – his pro German statements of past years tactfully forgotten), American industry buried German industry – and the “factories beyond the Urals” of Soviet propaganda were indeed beyond the Urals (the world being round) – they were in Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago (and so on).

    However, today things are very different.

    German family owned (inheritance tax may be starting in Germany – and that may have a bad effect over time) manufacturing business is still strong – in spite of the high energy costs (although these energy costs are harming Germany). Britain and the United States are in a terrible state.

    British manufacturing was about a third of German manufacturing in 2020. A third – the relative collapse since World War II has been that bad.

    I do not have the American figures for 2020 – (only for 2019), but the People’s Republic of China overtook the United States in 2014 – in 2019 Chinese industry dwarfed American industry (and the United States now appears to be falling apart – but we shall have to see).

    Britain is, sadly, not doing well. Perhaps it is best that Brian will not see what is to come to pass.

    Certainly the Credit Bubble money-created-from-nothing antics of the banks and finance houses are no more an “economy” than government spending is – yet both are counted in “GDP” (which treats consumption as if it was production).

  • John Lewis

    A very enjoyable listen.

    Thank you.

  • I’ll my own provincial bias here and I’d put California in the 1850sas a high point in freedom. A non-slave state, the booming Gold Rush economy of 1849 had busted but it had recovered and was much more mixed, the railroads hadn’t yet gained their monopoly, and San Francisco’s Vigilance committee’s had more weapons and artillery than the state government if you are a libertarian bent.

    Reasonably accepting of minorities, such as the the Californios, or descendants of the Spanish and Mexican settlers from the Viceroyalty of New Spain had membership in all levels of government. Less accommodating for the native Americans, but the proliferation of tiny tribes and the genocidal effect of disease and invasive species had reduced them considerably and they were considerably more free than after the “Ranchero” system was introduced. Just don’t be Chinese (or any Asian), as “Yellow Peril” was the racist style of the times.

    Cattle barons never came about due to the “Spanish Water Laws” that made water controlled by the State, not to whomever had the source upstream, so California avoided the landed gentry problems of the Southern US states and Texas. Hawaiians, Russians, and British all had their colonies were all absorbed into the state without issue.

    It mostly goes to crap starting in 1876, but at least the locals stopped the Eastern’rs from renaming the state “New Albion” and Anglicizing all the place-names.

    This, as always, is IMHO, and in this case, obviously biased.

  • Paul Marks

    Matthew H. Iskra – the problem with government control of rivers is that it leads to pollution, this was noted in the United Kingdom (where privately owned rivers were not polluted – but government owned ones were).

    I am glad you have not fallen for the “land theft” legend – there were some bad things done in California but there were very few Mexicans living in the area in 1848 and they were not driven out. The land mess came about because “Spanish Land Grants” were hopelessly vague (something that modern history text books leave out) “I own land” – what land specifically do you own? “Land – sort of round here”, no proper grid system. Even today many Latin American countries are just not clear on who-owns-what-land (specifically) and that has helped CRIPPLE their economic development (for example – see Honduras).

    California and Oregon also show that it is not the case that fiat money (so called “paper” money – although it does not have to be paper, the key feature is that it is money based on force and fear – rather than on what people choose to value) is not inevitable in an emergency.

    Even during the Civil War neither California or Oregon forced people to use the Federal Government “Greenbacks” (the return to the “non worth a Continental” currency of the Continental Congress – which the point of the Constitutional Convention of the 1780s was to GET AWAY FROM).

    But you are clearly correct – California up to 1861 was a free society, or as close to one as people are likely to ever get in this world.

  • Paul Marks

    Even in 1913 (my father was born February 2nd 1913) things were not to bad – no Federal Reserve fiat money or income tax (the Acts were passed in 1913) and no FBI or other political secret police. Basically a free society.

    The big problem was the education system – both the state education systems (which had mainly grown up in the late 19th century) and the corruption of private education by such vile creatures as Woodrow Wilson and Richard Ely.

    This led to the vast majority of people supporting more statism in the elections of 1912. They were living in the most prosperous society the world had ever seen, yet they had been convinced (by endless “education”) that liberty had failed, that they were living in terrible poverty, and that government spending and regulations were the source of all good things.

    The horrible failure of statism under Woodrow Wilson led to a raction – the Warren Harding landslide of 2020 and there was some real roll back of statism. But the, basically, free society of 1912 was never truly restored.

  • Paul Marks

    Those “Spanish water rights” have turned out badly in California – making water a matter of endless POLITICS, which is not good.

    As for a “landed gentry” – not being a follower of Bentham, Ricardo and the Mills (the “Philosophical Radicals”), I do not have a problem with a landed gentry. I support private rivers and private woodlands. Although I also support charitable trusts – opening rivers and woodland to the public (as long as people do not mess up the rivers and woodland).