More than a year after its publication, Tom Woods is apparently still losing sleep over The Church and the Libertarian (TCTL), which systematically exposes the fundamental incompatibility between Catholic teaching and the radically laissez-faire “ethics of liberty” Woods and the Mises Institute are attempting to pass off as a “venerable tradition” Catholics can embrace. TCTL demonstrates that the Mises Institute constitutes a veritable cult dedicated to the “legacy” of Murray Rothbard and Ludwig von Mises, liberal agnostics whose ethical, philosophical and even theological blundering (promoted relentlessly by Woods) are the book’s primary subject.
Unable to answer the book on its merits, Woods has enlisted the aid of fellow cult member Tony Flood, whose “Anarcho-Catholic” blogsite—nothing cultish there—is devoted entirely to a ludicrous line-by-line “commentary” on TCTL in which Flood is trying to peck the book to death in a manner that evokes an enraged duck. After months of ineffectual pecking and quacking, Flood has reached page 22 of 383.
Woods has linked his blog to Flood’s blog, on which he relies for regular misleading reports on a book he clearly hasn’t read. And just be to sure no one can answer Flood, Woods has turned off the comments feature.
In a recent blog posting, however, Woods has made a weak stab at responding to the book—not concerning the errors of the cult, as to which he has no defense, but rather an element of historical background the book mentions in its first pages: the enclosures of the commons in England and their relation to the dispossessed rural poor exploited by the factory system of the Industrial Revolution. Here Woods quotes an article he co-authored on the subject:
Whether the process of enclosure satisfies libertarian standards of justice is not the issue before us here, although much injustice is probably concealed beneath many modern scholars’ assurances that the process (which, although it sought substantial consensus, stopped short of unanimity) made agriculture more efficient…. The question, rather, is whether the process was responsible for systematic dispossession, the depopulation of the countryside, or rural poverty. It caused none of these outcomes.
According to Woods—who neatly sidesteps the manifest injustice of the process of enclosure—the forcible privatization of the English commons did not cause dispossession, rural depopulation or rural poverty. My contention in TCTL that it did, Woods asserts, is merely a “predictably tendentious, agitprop version of events.” Yet Woods admits that “Ferrara is not alone in this portrayal,” which is how Belloc, the Hammonds, and “nearly all social-democratic historians” viewed the matter “until the weight of the evidence began to overwhelm them…” And what is the “evidence” that supposedly “overwhelmed” Belloc and all the “social-democratic historians”? (Note: In the Woods lexicon there are “social-democratic historians” but no “capitalist historians.”) Evidently, it is all to be found in what Woods describes as “the past fifty years of scholarship” or “more recent research.” But why are the past fifty years of scholarship on the enclosures more reliable than the past two centuries of scholarship? Woods offers no demonstration. He does rely almost entirely, however, on a single book by a single scholar, G.E. Mingay, who is cited no fewer than seven times in the 884-word except from Woods’s article. It seems the “scholarship of the last fifty years” is rather skimpy. Or perhaps it is Woods’s research that is skimpy.
Woods does also cite one J.R. Wordie, who “concluded that by 1760 some 75 percent of English land was already enclosed and that contrary to the earlier consensus, it was not during the eighteenth century but during the seventeenth that ‘England swung over from being mainly an open-field country to being a mainly enclosed one’…” So, according to Wordie the process of enclosure was substantially further along in 1760 than my book (citing the earlier consensus Wordie disputes) suggests. What of it? How does that disprove the contention that enclosure dispossessed and impoverished rural populations? If anything, it proves that the process of dispossession began earlier. In fact, my book does not deny this but rather affirms it, citing none other than Belloc, who affirmed it also.1 Woods’s citation to Wordie is thus not only irrelevant, but misleading.
Woods asserts that “Moreover, the tenants themselves often initiated the enclosure, again contrary to the impression Belloc left, and even parliamentary enclosure operated on the basis of consensus.” Where is the proof for that contention? Here Woods’s article conspicuously omits any citation. We have only Woods’s naked assertion, unsupported by a single historical fact. The idea that tenants initiated their own dispossession, however, is absurd on its face. As for the supposed “consensus” involved in enclosure, whose consensus was it? Did that consensus include those dispossessed by a process whose injustice Woods sidesteps but implicitly admits? He provides no details.
In one of his seven citations to Mingay in less than two pages of commentary, Woods contends that the “clash of property interests was not always, or even very frequently, between large owners and small, but very often between the large owners themselves.” Again, what of it? We are talking about the dispossession of non-owners from the commons by both large and small “owners,” whose purported titles ultimately derived from the massive Henrican theft of Church lands that paved the way for English capitalism.
As Woods would have it, it is “agitprop” to say that “the wicked capitalists brought about the privatization of the commons, and this led to a reduction in the number of people who could be profitably engaged in agriculture. These poor displaced souls, in turn, had no choice but to work in the factories.”
First of all, no one is saying that “evil capitalists” as such enclosed the land, but rather that the enclosures by landowners left the dispossessed at the mercy of the English factory system operated by capitalists, including its network of “parishes” that were virtual concentration camps from which laborers could not escape without a “settlement certificate” it was almost impossible to obtain. Woods tellingly avoids any discussion of the industrial parish system, which even Adam Smith condemned as one the greatest evils in English history.2
At any rate, like so many of the propositions in the pop scholarship Woods presents with such suave assurance, this one is belied by his own sources. Woods cites T.S. Ashton as “the great historian of the Industrial Revolution…” But here is what Ashton wrote on the subject:
Evicted from their cottages, which were afterwards razed to the ground, they [the dispossessed peasants] crowded to areas where the fields were still open, or took to vagrancy. They and their descendants must have contributed largely to the body of semi-employed, inefficient labour that was to trouble the peace of politicians and poor-law administrators until 1834 and beyond…. [It] was precisely because enclosure released (or drove) men from the soil that it is to be counted among the processes that led to the industrial revolution…”3
Query: Has Woods actually read Ashton’s The Industrial Revolution? Or has he committed the same blunder he committed with his repeated cut-and-paste of a lone quotation from Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism concerning Luther’s incomprehension of the “free market”? Woods was blissfully unaware that the quotation was actually part of Tawney’s magisterial critique of capitalism, including his demonstration of how Luther’s own Protestant spirit, his divorce of the secular from the religious, had helped bring about the destruction of the medieval spiritual conception of social order in favor of the “creed of the individual … as master of his own, with no obligation to postpone his own profit to the well-being of his neighbors.” Someone recently pointed this out to Woods on his blogsite. Perhaps he will finally abandon his misuse of the quotation, although he has recycled it at least three times in articles attacking me as an economic ignoramus like Luther. By the way, if Woods had actually read Tawney, he would know that it was Tawney who described enclosure as “the hobby of the country gentleman” that became a legislative technique elaborated in the 18th century.4
And if Woods has actually read Ashton, he will know that between the lines, and in various explicit admissions, Ashton quite handily supports the distributist case. For example, Ashton writes: “It was not the least of the achievements of the industrial revolution that it drew into the economic system part of that legion of the lost, and that it turned many of the irregulars into an efficient, if over-regimented, members of an industrial army.”5 That is just Ashton’s sturdy Protestant way of admitting that vast numbers of dispossessed poor—that sorry lot of “irregulars,” that pitiable “legion of the lost”—were consigned to the miseries of the English factory system.
Speaking of those miseries, here is another source Woods cannot dismiss as a “social-democratic historian.” In Our Enemy, the State, that great hero of contemporary “anarcho-libertarians,” Albert Nock, observed of the 19th century that “The horrors of England’s industrial life in the last century,” including “child-labour and woman-labour in the mills and mines; Coketown and Mr. Bounderby; starvation wages; killing hours; vile and hazardous conditions of labour; coffin ships officered by ruffians,” were all outcomes of “the State’s primary intervention whereby the population of England was expropriated from the land…” As Nock concluded: “When the factory system came in, those hordes were already there, expropriated, and they went into the mills for whatever Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Plugson of Undershot would give them, because they had no choice but to beg, steal or starve.”6
Thus it is Nock the anarcho-libertarian, not any “social-democratic historian,” who supports the contention that early English capitalism could not have arisen without State intervention in expropriating the poor from the land, leaving them with no choice but to surrender to the factory system. That is precisely what TCTL shows by way of background in the chapter devoted to the subject of how capitalism has never been without its coercive partner, the modern nation-state, and that the “free market” of Austrian fantasies has never really existed.
Woods writes that “Ferrara has embarrassed himself by simply adopting the fact-free distributist interpretation of enclosures.” But as is so often the case when one examines Woods’s “Austrian scholarship” closely,7 it is Woods who embarrasses himself.
I conclude with some verses from two famous contemporaneous protest poems inspired by the English enclosures. In The Goose and the Commons, written anonymously in the 17th century, the poet laments:
The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.
The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.
And, in the late 18th century, lamenting rural depopulation on account of enclosure—which Woods assures us never happened—Oliver Goldsmith wrote these verses in his The Deserted Village (1770) after witnessing the destruction of an entire village and its surrounding farms in order to incorporate them into the landscape garden of the 1st Earl of Harcourt (that “gentleman’s hobby” Tawney remarked):
Sweet smiling village, loveliest of the lawn,
Thy sports are fled, and all thy charms withdrawn;
Amidst thy bowers the tyrant’s hand is seen,
And desolation saddens all thy green.
One only master grasps the whole domain,
And half a tillage stints thy smiling plain….
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay:
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made:
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroy’d, can never be supplied.
Sweet was the sound, when oft at evening’s close
Up yonder hill the village murmur rose.
There, as I past with careless steps and slow,
The mingling notes came soften’d from below;
The swain responsive as the milk-maid sung,
The sober herd that low’d to meet their young,
The noisy geese that gabbled o’er the pool,
The playful children just let loose from school,
The watch-dog’s voice that bay’d the whisp’ring wind,
And the loud laugh that spoke the vacant mind,
These all in sweet confusion sought the shade,
And fill’d each pause the nightingale had made.
But now the sounds of population fail,
No cheerful murmurs fluctuate in the gale,
No busy steps the grass-grown foot-way tread,
For all the bloomy flush of life is fled!
One 19th century commentator on Goldsmith’s poem, taking the capitalist line, remarked that Goldsmith had written during “a period of severe agricultural depression, and his sympathetic nature caused him to exaggerate the disasters that were following the depopulation of our rural districts.”8 In other words, the depopulation occurred, contrary to Woods and his “more recent research,” which appears to be essentially numerous citations to one book.
There is no poetry in Woods’s cold, capitalist version of history. No poetry and no Catholic sense of justice. But defending the capitalist narrative of history is part of the mission of the cult whose guides are Mises and Rothbard rather than Christ and the Gospel, of which Mises wrote:
Jesus’ words are full of resentment against the rich, and the Apostles are no meeker in this respect. The Rich Man is condemned because he is rich, the Beggar praised because he is poor. The only reason why [sic] Jesus does not declare war against the rich and preach revenge on them is that God has said: “Revenge is mine.”9
I say it again: It is Tom Woods who embarrasses himself.
To purchase The Church and the Libertarian, click here.
- Cf. TCTL, 15.
- Ibid., 19.
- Ibid., 16-17. Citing Ashton, The Industrial Revolution, 20.
- Tawney, 258.
- Industrial Revolution, 46.
- Cf. TCTL, citing Nock, Our Enemy, the State, 106, no. 14.
- see, e.g. TCTL at 142-47 for a discussion of Woods’s abuse of the Late Scholastics.
- William Knight, “Dairy Farming,” in The Nineteenth Century, Vol. 39 (February 1869).
- Socialism, Ch. 29.