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Dare to be wise

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Image: Beautiful Britain

England’s traditions of property ownership and the rights of contract, along with its supporting legal system, are historically unique in the world. Only in England did the legal right exist for individuals to own and freely dispose of property.
As a consequence, according to accounts by visiting merchants and diplomats from the 15th century onwards, England had a per capita wealth and standard of living, even among peasant farmers, vastly greater than that of any other European country.

The point is good, but we dislike the term peasant for English farmers. They never used the term themselves. As early as the 14th century they called themselves freemen or freeholders, artisans or farmers. They did not call their rebellion the Peasants' Revolt but the Great Revolt.

Church and court records of the time [the 13th century], both in the rural districts and in the cities, show continual sales of all or parts of farm land and other property by the legal owner, who was always an individual, not a family. Fathers could, and did, disinherit individual children; women owned and sold property in their own name, appearing by legal right to represent themselves in such transactions before the local courts.

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. . .The expected pattern in rural England, described by Henry de Bracton in the 13th century (On the Laws and Customs of England), was for sons to leave their families at an early age and hire themselves out as laborers on other farms or in the trades. They usually worked and saved their wages until they had accumulated enough to buy a small farm or business, then they married and began to raise their families. Harder-working and more capable individuals often became well-to-do by continually adding to their property holdings, but there was nothing guaranteed by law or tradition.

Indeed, records over several generations in any given local jurisdiction show a constant turnover of family names in the property ownership and tax records. The grandchildren of a wealthy yeoman farmer could easily be poor, if they were not equally hard-working and prudent.


. . .Elsewhere in Europe, property was a vague concept based, not on a legal title as in England, but on the feudal tradition of occupancy by generations of the same family. A peasant farm was “owned” by the whole family. No member of the family had any legal way to dispose of any of the property by contract. . .The effect was social and economic stagnation with little prospect for increasing the wealth or living-standards of individuals.

The quotes are from Tom Brewton, writing about The Origins of English Individualism by Alan Macfarlane. They were linked by the Barrister.

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The legally grounded individualism that Brewton describes was not the whole story. As early as Magna Carta, some lands were shared in common and we had the right to use riverbank and woods. When big landowners seized those lands they were fiercely opposed, often unsuccessfully but sometimes successfully.

Working together Brits also invented a unique creation - trusts and charities, schools, universities and hospitals. These were protected from taxation, political exploitation and fraud. There are hundreds of thousands of them all over the country, examples of Brits, not the government, deciding what to do with their income.

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Manchester Grammar School, an independent school, was founded in 1515 for poor boys. Today generous Brits underwrite hundreds of the school's scholarships. The school's motto is Sapere aude - dare to be wise.

The fear today is that "In the Western world, countries that were once the crucible of freedom are slipping remorselessly into a thinly disguised serfdom in which an ever higher proportion of your assets are annexed by the state". This annexation, otherwise known as taxes and fees, forces you to give more and more of what you earn to fund state schemes over which you have little say.

This is not to say that government has no role to play. But the historical rule is that big governments crush people. That they do so with our money is one of history's terrible ironies.

Comments (1)

Sadly, the topic of your post doesn't mention or laud the 20th century exemplars and defenders of property ownership in England, Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton. They built, of course, on the leadership of Pope Leo XIII's Rerum novarum.

Later came the exemplary work of economist E.F. Schumacher with his Small is Beautiful, which influenced so many in the 60's and early 70's.

But, of course, as Belloc rightly observed, even the English reformation was about the tyranny of the rich against the poor. And so it continues to go.

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