Continuing his refutation of the Ferrara book on Catholicism and libertarianism, Tony Flood discusses (here, here, and here) the enclosure movement in Britain. Ferrara, as I feared, has embarrassed himself by simply adopting the fact-free distributist interpretation of enclosures: the wicked capitalists brought about the privatization of the commons, and this led to a reduction in the number of people who could be profitably engaged in agriculture. These poor displaced souls, in turn, had no choice but to work in the factories.
This was a central socialist theme: the people must not be viewed as having chosen to abandon the land for the factory, having made a rational assessment of what was best for them. They must have been tricked or forced into it. So Ferrara is not alone in this portrayal; it is how nearly all social-democratic historians, until the weight of the evidence began to overwhelm them, tried to portray matters. T.S. Ashton, the great historian of the Industrial Revolution, rejected this argument, and with some amusement quoted another historian as saying that the relatively high wages (by contemporary standards) of the factories had “driven” the people from the land, as if this were something sinister.
The enclosure movement was in fact not a single movement and was in some cases not a “capitalist” phenomenon at all, so it’s not clear what Ferrara would have proven by citing it even if he had gotten the history right. But, as usually happens when you ignore the past 50 years of scholarship, he got it dreadfully wrong. (I guess those PhD’s who blurbed the book hadn’t read much about this, either.)
Here’s a relevant excerpt from an article I coauthored on this subject.
Distributists have sometimes pointed to the enclosure movement as an important example of large landowners’ use of state power to dispossess others of their property and rights and thereby to contribute to this unhappy outcome. Such measures, the argument goes, enriched the larger landowners at the expense of smaller, marginal ones and thus artificially created a body of people with no alternative but to flock to the cities for employment (Belloc  1977, 103–4).
Enclosures involved the transformation of lands over which common rights once existed—open fields, commons, and wastes—into property held in severalty. Scholars long underestimated, however, the extent to which enclosure had been carried out by agreement before the age of so-called parliamentary enclosures (themselves essentially a regional phenomenon in the Midlands from the latter half of the eighteenth century through the early decades of the nineteenth), which typically involved petitioning Parliament on a case-by-case basis to authorize a particular act of enclosure. J. R. Wordie has concluded that by 1760 some 75 percent of English land was already enclosed and that contrary to the earlier consensus, it was not during the eighteenth century but during the seventeenth that “England swung over from being mainly an open-field country to being a mainly enclosed one” (1983, 486, 488, 495). Thus, the bulk of enclosure had long since been accomplished by the time Belloc and other distributists [including Ferrara] seem to have thought it was busy creating the industrial proletariat. Moreover, the tenants themselves often initiated the enclosure, again contrary to the impression Belloc left, and even parliamentary enclosure operated on the basis of consensus.
[G.K.] Chesterton and [Hilaire] Belloc wrote at a time when there was both an increasing interest in agricultural history and an inclination to accept the thesis proposed by J. L. Hammond and Barbara Hammond (1911) that parliamentary enclosures had been the primary cause of rural distress and even, in the Marxist-inspired formulation of Gilbert Slater (1907) and Wilhelm Hasbach (1908), that enclosures had been the mechanism that created a landless industrial proletariat (Mingay 1997, 2)—claims not much different from the distributist complaint about enclosures.
Again, more recent research has made it difficult to persist in this view. According to G. E. Mingay, the “modern understanding of the slow pace of the ‘agricultural revolution’ and of the effects of parliamentary enclosures does not, in general, support the old view that a major decline of small farmers occurred between 1760 and 1830. The land tax evidence, indeed, shows that the numbers of small owners tended to rise for much of this period” (1968, 31; emphasis added). Agricultural employment increased in the wake of parliamentary enclosure. Again contrary to Belloc, recent research has found that most of this growth in agricultural employment was the result of a burst of smallscale production that emerged in order to meet the growing demand for agricultural products in the industrial areas of England (Mingay 1997, 142).
Any decline in the number of small farmers had already occurred before this period, particularly between about 1660 and 1750. Among the reasons for this decline were the generally low prices that prevailed, as well as the heavy taxes of the period from 1688 to 1715. Then, too, the increased availability of occupational alternatives—Mingay cites trade, industry, and the professions—made small farming less attractive (1968, 32). Writes F. M. L. Thompson, “The peasant-owners, it must be repeated, did not disappear because there was an industrial revolution. They had gradually failed to survive over the preceding centuries” (1966, 517).
Enclosure also did not consistently pit large landowners against small ones. For one thing, the “clash of property interests was not always, or even very frequently, between large owners and small, but very often between the large owners themselves” (Mingay 1997, 56, 63–64). For another, small owners themselves sometimes initiated drives for enclosure (Mingay 1997, 14, 28–29). It was not simply the potential for greater agricultural efficiency and thus for higher output and land values that accounts for the desire for enclosures. With the reorganization and assignment of property titles and the overall rationalization of the crazy quilt of strips and plots that sometimes characterized the countryside came a welcome opportunity to commute the payment of tithes by granting a portion of land to the tithe owner in lieu of additional payments from postenclosure landowners. Enclosure also created opportunities to build more durable and accessible roads and to improve drainage capacity (Mingay 1997, 45–53).
Just about anyone, whatever his economic status, could favor such improvements. Whether the process of enclosure satisfies libertarian standards of justice is not the issue before us here, although much injustice is probably concealed beneath many modern scholars’ assurances that the process (which, although it sought substantial consensus, stopped short of unanimity) made agriculture more efficient. [A common estimate makes English agriculture 50 to 100 percent more productive as a result of enclosures.] The question, rather, is whether the process was responsible for systematic dispossession, the depopulation of the countryside, or rural poverty. It caused none of these outcomes.
Once again, therefore, reality is rather different, more interesting, and less cartoonish than Ferrara’s predictably tendentious, agitprop version of events.