The Enclosure Movement-20th Century version

By Eugene J. McCarthy

Joseph A. Schumpeter, the great theorist of economics, is reported to have said, not long before his death in 1950, that if he were to begin a new career in the study of economics, he would not study economic theory or statistics, studies that had made him famous; he would study economic history as more relevant to economic problems and policy.

Most of the arguments made in support of the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed by President Clinton on Dec. 8, 1993, and the complex of programs and policies of which it is a part are based on quantitative projections and theoretical claims, abetted by personal endorsements, such as those of the five living ex-Presidents who were called upon in September 1993 to bear witness to the merits of the treaty, despite the fact that they, taken collectively, had compiled the worst record of fiscal irresponsibility of any five consecutive Presidents in the history of the nation.

Their judgment was supported by the retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin L. Powell, who emerged from the White House in a business suit to express his support.

President Clinton spoke for one dead President in stating that if John F. Kennedy were alive, he would be for NAFTA. In my opinion, Kennedy would still prefer the as-yet-unrealized proposals in his 1961 Alliance for Progress. I have long been suspicious of politicians who confidently report what dead politicians would be for or against.

What we are accepting, or being asked to accept, in the name of better use of capital, resources and labor, leading to greater returns on investment and increase in national wealth (the greater good for the greater number, which can be 50 percent plus one) is a modern version of the Enclosure Movement.

In the current case, the disorder is not quite like that which resulted from the surplusing of serfs and farm workers following the introduction of sheep-raising into England in the 13th century - a historical movement that prompted Thomas More to note that "the gentle sheepe, of all creatures the most harmless, are now become so ravenous that they begin to devour men, waste fields, depopulate houses and whole townships."

The effects of today's changes are more like those that marked the changes of the 17th and 18th centuries, with the displacement of farmers and farm workers that followed from the introduction of scientific agriculture, new equipment, fertilizer, selective plant breeding and new patterns of trade and commerce.

These developments produced the 18th-century land laws of England and this quatrain, a favorite of the late Senator Paul H. Douglas, himself an economist:

They imprison the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common,
But honor and let go loose
The man or woman who steals the common from the goose.

Even more are the present changes like those that accompanied the introduction and growth of the factory system that displaced independent weavers, spinners, knitters, shoemakers and other artisans, resulting in social dislocation, human sufferings and general disorder, similar to the social evils that are growing more evident in the United States and in other countries of the world today.

The gulf between rich and poor widened. Whole towns were destroyed. Larger towns and cities suffered dislocation and disorder because of the influx of displaced farm workers and craftsmen. Old guilds were forced to alter their status or be destroyed by competition. Some transformed themselves into corporations or became partners in companies. (United Airlines employees are now attempting to save their jobs by buying into the company.)

Some of the guilds survived, but with markedly limited bargaining powers, and became like contemporary unions-last-man or last-person clubs. The "Wealth of the Nation" became the measure of economic and social good, as the Gross National Product is today's controlling standard for judging the health of our economy and society.

Kings and nobles (the politicians of the time) became the friends and companions of the rich. The schoolboy definition of feudalism, as a system in which "everyone belonged to someone, and everybody else belonged to the king," has a new application in our society in which "everyone belongs to a corporation and everyone else belongs to the Federal Government."

Eugene J. McCarthy was a Democratic-Farmer-Labor Senator from Minnesota from 1959 through 1970, ran for President in 1968 and 1976, and is the author of more than a dozen books, including A Colony of the World: The United States Today (Hippocrene Books, New York, 1992).

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