The Environmental Enclosure

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One of those great historical events that the Left so enjoys pinning on capitalism is the enclosure movement of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. As they tell it, the wonderfully egalitarian “commons” of the medieval shires were closed off by wretched capitalists, and the peasants were forced into the cities where they starved to death.

As with most supposedly air tight arguments against modern capitalism , it becomes soon apparent that market forces actually had very little say in the way the enclosure was conducted. It resulted from highly political methods of allocating land to friends of the Crown. There was not a whole lot of Lockean homesteading going on. In addition, government, not the market should be blamed for the troubles that the peasants had in finding work in the cities. Thanks to government protected guilds (medieval unions), peasants were essentially legally prohibited from finding profitable work in the cities and towns. Mass poverty and starvation ensued.

Although the role of the market is misunderstood, the popular lore of enclosure accurately holds that many people were thus prohibited from using areas of the countryside that they previously had access to. The land was closed of to economic development by anyone other than friends of the government. The Left sees this as a dastardly deed brought on by capitalism. It is ironic then, that we are now witnessing a new enclosure, although this time fully supported by the Left.

The modern enclosure is the movement on the Left toward wilderness preservation, and the Left is using its political connections to make sure that the wilderness is closed off from most everyone forever. I have already discussed the elitist implications of this wilderness movement, but the environmental enclose now extends beyond just the wilderness. They don’t want people moving into town any more either.

The environmentalists claim that they are for wilderness preservation because it helps keep the wilderness out of the hands of the special interests. It has become clear, though, that the environmentalists are the most special special interest of all. At least the miners and loggers and drillers were willing to share the wilderness with others. Not so with the environmentalists. They are an interest so narrow, and demanding, that they must make sure that no one else can ever touch their precious forests. The environmentalists and their allies must be the only ones to receive any economic value whatsoever from the wilderness

The recent Clinton wilderness plans that the Bush administration has let stand will close off 90,000 square miles of land. That’s one-third of the national forest land in the United States. One-third! In case you’re bad at math, that’s a pretty hefty chunk of real estates. It’s real estate closed off to everyone but the well equipped, mountaineering, over-educated white environmentalist.

They want you out of the cities and towns, too. Now that the environmentalists have moved in and bought their precious bungalows, they’re making it clear that the rest of us aren’t welcome. It seems if we choose to build a new (or affordable) house, we are contributing to sprawl. Everywhere they can, the environmentalists are busy passing growth measures to keep others out and to increase their own property values. Filled with population caps, draconian zoning restrictions, rent controls, and building ordinances, these growth control measures serve no one but those who are already established homeowners and will profit from excluding everyone else.

So, unless you’re fortunate enough to be a member of the enlightened elect, you should just accept that the environmentalists want the environment all to themselves. In the end, the worst thing about the new enclosure is that it’s not even turning what is now private land into the “commons”. At least that would be compatible with the left’s socialistic tendencies. No, they are taking land and making sure it is not common to anyone. For most, it has become useless land; closed off to all but the chosen few.

May 10, 2001

Ryan McMaken [send him mail] lives in Denver, Colorado. He edits the Western Mercury.

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