The Simplified Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith -- Book 3, Chapter 2a: Engrossment of Land and The Discouragement of Agriculture After the Fall of the Roman Empire
Chapter 2a: Engrossment of land -- the discouragement of agriculture after the fall of the roman empire
The Western Roman empire was defeated by the Germans and Scythians.
- It created confusions which lasted for many centuries.
- The violence of the barbarians interrupted the commerce between the towns and the countryside.
- The towns were deserted and the countryside was left uncultivated.
- Western Europe enjoyed opulence under the Roman empire.
- But it sunk into the lowest state of poverty and barbarism.
- The chiefs of those nations acquired or usurped most of the lands to themselves.
- Most of the lands were uncultivated.
- But all of them had a proprietor.
- All of them were engrossed mostly by a few great proprietors.
This original great engrossing of uncultivated lands might have been but a transitory evil.
- They might soon have been divided and broken into small parcels either by:
- succession or
- The law of primogeniture hindered them from being divided by succession.
- The introduction of entails prevented them from being broken into small parcels by alienation.
3 When land, like movables, is the only means subsistence and enjoyment, the natural law of succession divides it among all the children.
- The enjoyments of all the children are supposed equally dear to the father.
- This natural law of succession took place among the Romans.
- In the inheritance of lands, the Romans made no distinction between:
- elder and younger and
- male and female,
- just as we currently do not make distinction in the distribution of movables.
- When land was considered as a means for subsistence, power and protection, it was thought better for it to descend undivided to one.
- In those disorderly times, every great landlord was a petty prince.
- His tenants were his subjects.
- He was their judge and legislator in peace and their leader in war.
- He made war according to his own discretion.
- The security and protection of a landed estate depended on its size.
- To divide it was to ruin it.
- To expose every part of it was to allow it to be swallowed up by its neighbours.
- The law of primogeniture came to take place in the succession of landed estates.
- In the same way, the succession of monarchies came about gradually and not always at their first institution.
- The monarchy's power and security must descend entirely to one of the children so that it would not be weakened by division.
- Some general rule must determine which child will be preferred.
- This rule is not based on doubtful personal merit, but on some plain and undisputable difference.
- The only indisputable difference is sex and age.
- The male is universally preferred to the female.
- With all other things are equal, the elder everywhere takes place of the younger.
- Hence the origin of the right of primogeniture and lineal succession.
4 Laws frequently continue enforced long after the reasonable circumstances which created them have passed.
- Presently in Europe, the proprietor of a single acre is as secure of his possession as the proprietor of 100,000 acres.
- The right of primogeniture is still respected.
- Of all institutions, it is the fittest to support the pride of family distinctions.
- It is still likely to endure for many centuries.
- In every other respect, it runs most contrary to the real interest of a big family.
- Because it grants a right which beggars all the rest of the children to enrich one child.
Entails are the natural consequences of the law of primogeniture.
- They were introduced to preserve a lineal succession established by the law of primogeniture.
- Entails hinder any part of the original estate from being carried out of the line by gift, devise, or alienation by the folly or misfortune of any of its successive owners.
- They were unknown to the Romans.
- Neither their substitutions nor fideicommisses* resemble entails.
- Some French lawyers used such ancient language in the modern institution.
* [only heirs can inherit the estate]
6 When great landed estates were principalities, entails might be reasonable.
- Like the fundamental laws of some monarchies, they aim to prevent one man from endangering the security of thousands.
- But this is most absurd in present-day Europe where all estates are secured by national laws.
- Entails are founded on the most absurd of all suppositions:
- That every successive generation does not have an equal right to the earth and its possessions.
- That the property of the present generation should be restrained and regulated according to the fancy of those who died 500 years ago.
- Entails are still respected in most of Europe, particularly in countries where noble birth is a necessary qualification for civil or military honours.
- Entails are thought necessary to maintain the exclusive privilege and honour of the nobility.
- The nobility usurped this unjust advantage over other citizens.
- It is thought reasonable that the nobility should have another advantage called entails to prevent their poverty.
- Their poverty would render the honour of the country ridiculous.
- English common law is said to abhor perpetuities.
- Perpetuitues are more restricted in England than in any other European monarchy.
- In Scotland, more than 1/5, perhaps more than 1/3 of its lands are under strict entail.
Great tracts of uncultivated land were engrossed by particular families in this way.
- Such lands were prevented from being divided again forever as much as possible.
- A great proprietor is seldom a great improver.
- In the disorderly times which created those barbarous institutions, the great proprietor was employed in:
- defending his own territories
- extending his jurisdiction and authority over his neighbours
- He did not have time to cultivate and improve the land.
- When law and order was established and afforded him this leisure, he often did not have the inclination nor the needed abilities.
- He frequently had no stock to improve his lands because his expences frequently exceeded his revenue.
- If he was an economist, he generally found it more profitable to use his savings on new purchases than in improving his old estate.
- To improve land with profit, like all other commercial projects, requires an exact attention to small savings and small gains.
- A man born to a great fortune is seldom capable of this attention, even though he may be naturally frugal.
- He would rather focus on ornaments which please his fancy than on profits which he has little need for.
- Since infancy, he was accustomed to be anxious about the elegance of his dress, equipage, house, and furniture.
- This habit naturally follows him when he thinks of improving land.
- He embellishes perhaps 400-500 acres near his house, at 10 times the cost of the land after all his improvements.
- He finds that if he improved his whole estate in the same way, he would be bankrupt before he finished 10% of it.
- There are still some great estates in the United Kingdom which have continued without interruption in the hands of the same family since feudal times.
- Compare the present condition of those estates with the possessions of the small proprietors near them, and you will see how unfavourable such extensive property is to improvement.
8 "If little improvement was to be expected from such great proprietors, still less was to be hoped for from those who occupied the land under them."
- In ancient Europe, the occupiers of land were all tenants at will.
- They were almost all slaves.
- But their slavery was milder than that of the ancient Greeks and Romans, or even of our West Indian colonies.
- They belonged more directly to the land than to their master.
- They could be sold with it, but not separately.
- They could marry, provided it was with the consent of their master.
- The master could not dissolve the marriage by selling the man and wife to different persons.
- If he maimed or murdered any of them, he was liable to some small penalty.
- They could not acquire property.
- Whatever they acquired was acquired to their master.
- He could take it from them at pleasure.
- Whatever cultivation and improvement could be done by such slaves was properly carried on by their master at his expence and for his benefit.
- The seed, the cattle, and the instruments of husbandry were all his.
- Such slaves could acquire only their daily maintenance.
- This kind of slavery still exists in Russia, Poland, Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, and other parts of Germany.
- It was only abolished in the western and south-western Europe.
Land Improvement from Slavery
But if great improvements are seldom expected from great proprietors, they are the least expected from slaves.
- All ages and nations demonstrate that the work done by slaves is in the end the dearest of any.
- Although it appears to cost only their maintenance,
- A person who cannot own property can be only interested in eating as much and working as little as possible.
- Any work beyond what is sufficient for his own maintenance can be squeezed out of him by violence only, and not by his own interest.
- In ancient Italy, corn cultivation degenerated.
- Pliny and Columella remarked that it became unprofitable when it was managed by slaves.
- In ancient Greece in the time of Aristotle, it was not much better.
- The ideal republic in the laws of Plato requires a territory of boundless extent and fertility, like the plains of Babylon.
- It needs to maintain 5,000 idle men, which is the number of warriors supposedly needed for its defence, together with their women and servants.
The pride of man makes him love to domineer.
- Nothing mortifies him than to be obliged to condescend to persuade his inferiors.
- He will prefer the service of slaves to that of freemen, wherever it is allowed:
- by law and
- by the nature of the work.
- Tobacco and sugar planting can afford the expence of slave-cultivation.
- Corn planting currently cannot afford slaves.
- In the English colonies which principally grow corn, most of the work is done by freemen.
- The late resolution of the Quakers in Pennsylvania to free all their negro slaves shows that their slaves were not very numerous.
- If slaves made any big part of their property, such a resolution could never have been accepted.
- In our sugar colonies, on the contrary, all the work is done by slaves.
- In our tobacco colonies, much of the work is done by slaves.
- The profits of a sugar plantation in our West Indian colonies are much greater than the profits of any other cultivation in Europe or America.
- The profits of a tobacco plantation are inferior to those of sugar but superior to those of corn.
- Both sugar and tobacco can afford slave-cultivation.
- But sugar can afford it better than tobacco.
- There are more negroes in our sugar colonies than in our tobacco colonies.
Next: Chapter 2b: Farmers