We Might As Well Be Serfs

The Federal government’s rental evictions moratorium has now been extended until March 31, and there is every prospect it will be extended further. This yet again weakens the property rights of landlords, which eroded steadily since World War II. With shareholders also attacked by the ESG movement and interest rates going negative in many countries, no form of property is exempt from expropriation. We might as well be serfs!

“Britons never, never, never shall be slaves” they caroled in 1740 at Cliveden House, in front of Frederick Prince of Wales and his wife, Princess Augusta. It was the chorus of the last number in a masque “Alfred” about the foundation of British freedom, a song is now known as “Rule, Britannia,” intended as a stirring invocation of Tory freedom against entrenched Whig tyranny.

Four hundred years earlier, they could not have sung it, because almost all Britons were in a state of semi-slavery known as serfdom. Britons’ emancipation from that state was an enormous civilizing achievement, involving the creation of property rights, that had not been matched elsewhere in Europe in 1740, except in the Netherlands. Those property rights are now being very severely eroded; if they disappear, our re-inserfment in some form will be the result.

1348, just under 400 years before the premiere of Arne’s masterpiece, was the beginning of ordinary people’s liberation from serfdom in Britain for one reason: the Black Death. Since that plague wiped out about a third of the population, it raised the bargaining power of serfs relative to landowners, who were desperate for labor to work their estates. The serfs realized they preferred to sell their labor to the local lord for cash, rather than being enslaved – if the lord objected, they could move to another village, where empty cottages would be available and they would be welcomed.

Since repeated smaller plagues kept the population well below the carrying capacity of the land until the 16th century, the result over the next century was a substantial rise in living standards and the wholesale replacement of feudal tenure in land by freeholds that could be bought and sold. This did not happen elsewhere in Europe (or if it did partially, as in the Holy Roman Empire, anti-reforms in the impoverished and war-torn 17th century reversed the process). Even by 1500, Britain had private property at all levels of the system and had more or less eliminated both serfdom and feudal tenures.

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(The Bear's Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of "sell" recommendations put ...

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