Distributism and the Enclosure Acts

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    Dear Professors,
    This question is intended primarily for Dr. Woods, since the articles I have been reading are either by him, or by his critics, but I would be delighted to hear the perspective of anyone who can help.

    I studied Catholic theology in graduate school, and wrote my master’s thesis on “Agriculture in Catholic Social Teaching.” Agriculture and CST were (are) both fields of intense interest for me, although unfortunately I was seriously under qualified to write what I did, and am now thoroughly embarrassed of the majority of my thesis. I had virtually no knowledge of economics, let alone the history of agriculture I was presenting, or the industrial revolution – I simply cherry picked various lines from CST and tried to piece together a picture of agriculture and society envisioned by authors such as Chesterton, Belloc, Thomas Stork, E.F. Schumacher, Joseph Pierce, Wendell Berry and Denis Fahey – most of whom favor in some form or another “distributism” as a social model.

    Then, I discovered Dr. Woods’ article “CST and Economic Law: An Unresolved Tension.” It was a major wake up call. I started re-assessing the distributist model favored by people like Stork and Christopher Ferrara. I read the back and forth between you and Stork, and have to say that I found your articles more convincing, and that they did more actual explaining of the phenomena in question. You basically turned me into an Austrian, and here I am at Liberty Classroom.

    But my old “Distributist Heritage” still has some questions. One is about the enclosure acts in England, which I am just learning about now. In a 3-part article, Christopher Ferrara seems to think that your view of the enclosure acts discredits Austrians and proves the viability of distributism.

    So, here are my questions:
    1. Are the enclosure acts morally defensible (particularly from a Catholic perspective. Leo XIII’s emphasis on the need for private property seems to speak against common property? Am I misunderstanding things here??)
    2. Would Capitalism have really been prevented from developing without the enclosure acts? Ferrara says in the article above that “Capitalism has never been without its coercive partner, the modern nation state.” What might the history of capitalism have looked like in England without the enclosure acts?
    3. Can you point to examples of capitalism developing in countries without such a “coercive partner” of the nation-state?

    Perhaps the truth is that capitalism did have a coercive partner in many instances, and that capital accumulation and concentrated manufacturing could have happened in a gentler, “more organic” manner than it did, without dispossessing the poor of their livelihoods. Is there any credence to this idea? It seems indisputable that the poor are better off today because of industrialism, but maybe the capitalist system could have theoretically developed better?? If so, it would explain that both Austrians and Distributists are on to something, even though Distributists would be mistakenly blaming “capitalism per se,” rather than a certain implementation of capitalism. Dr. Woods, I am dying to know your thoughts on this…

    4. Christopher Ferrara makes a lot of critical comments on your historical scholarship regarding the enclosure acts. Have you published a line-by-line defense of his accusations somewhere? Permit me to quote one of his accusations:

    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.

    I would love to hear what you have to say in reply to this. I trust you as someone who researches with an honest mind, seeking the truth, and it is hard to believe that you are ignoring substantial bodies of important historical evidence, as he claims.

    I hope I have not dragged on too long. Thank you for your time!

    Max Becher

    Jason Jewell

    I believe Dr. Woods has responded to Ferrara on this question elsewhere. I found this after a Google search: http://www.tomwoods.com/blog/keep-digging-that-hole/

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