Friday, September 30, 2016

Ideas of Liberty Sprung Up In Cities

I am reading Economic and social history of medieval Europe by Henri Pirenne. One of the interesting ideas in his assessment is the effect of trade and subsequently, cities on Western Europe. The Mannerbund struggled to provide itself with all necessary goods. In some cases this led to quite odd situations- like multiple discontiguous estates. As an example, many monasteries would have small holdings in wine country in order to make sure the ever necessary supply of wine was made. Trade made this sort of thing unnecessary.

But trade also made the cities, the occupants of which were not making a living off of the land, but on their ability to travel, so city dwellers needed freedom. And should a serf escape to a city, well, his existence there would eventually make him free.

Additionally, as the lords began to live at an ever higher standard, they tended to end up needing to borrow money, becoming beholden to the city dwellers capable of providing loans.

Obviously, given how history turned out, we can say the nobility and Church sort of lost to the city dwellers, although one could certainly make an argument that the previous classes certainly helped hammer their own nails. If the nobility weren't, for instance, so foolish as to run around Europe for a 100 years engaging in fruitless battles, then perhaps their great estates would have flourished and continued to be profitable.

It has been my suspicion that the common pseudo-historical assumption that the great estates simply couldn't work anymore was not true in any real economic sense. The burgeoning modern state simply had to either seize or tax the estates. As the state increased, the taxes increased, and the lords were ever less an authority and ever more a target.

In current economic thought the concept of property, especially private property is universal- in the sense that both the noble and the merchant are dealing with the same properties- which would basically be an ownership in something. Property can't be the thing itself, especially if it could exist in a state of nature without an owner, but it has to be a right invested in the owner.

But there is a significant difference in incentive between the city dweller and the nobility- almost as if there is a difference in kind (with regard to the nature of property) rather than degree.
Perhaps the difference lies in time preference, with a land owner generally having to take a longer view, if he wants to keep, improve, and maintain his land.
Currently though, most land ownership is through a prism of city finance, so it is questionable as to whether we are getting any benefit of long term thinking at all.

The one thing a city dweller and a land owners could plausibly have in common though, is a longer view if men were encouraged to think in terms of dynasties again. Whether an agriculturalist or family business within the city, and intergenerational concern elevates the people involved. A balance must be reached, and we know quite well this balance is not reached by merely waffling left to right in the modern political sphere. Unfortunately, if there are any beneficial political changes made, they will probably be accidental.

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