Lead book review

Has land ownership changed our lives for better or for worse?

It made Britain a world power, but unleashed the kind of greed that led to the wolves of Wall Street, according to the late great Andro Linklater in Owning the Earth

8 February 2014

9:00 AM

8 February 2014

9:00 AM

Owning the Earth: The Transforming History of Land Ownership Andro Linklater

Bloomsbury, pp.483, £20, ISBN: 9781408815748

If the gentle reader has any concerns that a study of land ownership might tend to the dry, they will be dispelled in the very first pages of this book by the spectacular flamboyance of its opening. There is not an economist in sight. Instead, we have the piratical figure of the Sir Humphrey Gilbert — Elizabethan seadog, soldier and mathematician, ‘openly bisexual’, and with the arresting habit of ‘decapitating his enemies after battle [and] then lining the path to his tent with their severed heads’ — returning in 1583 from the first expedition to create an English colony in North America.

Sir Humphrey Gilbert stands proxy for a momentous historical transformation. For in Owning the Earth, Andro Linklater argues that Gilbert’s England was the first state to replace feudal principles of land ownership, founded on obligations of service and custom, with a radically new theory of landholding that asserted ‘exclusive control of the ground’: landed property was something absolutely at the disposal of the owner, to use and profit by as he saw fit.

The consequences were profound. In 17th-century Britain, this led to landowners using Parliament to assert their security of title against threats of arbitrary expropriation, especially by the Crown. In turn, the rising profitability of land, and the monetisation of the capital it represented, created the economic conditions that made possible the rise of Britain and, later, the United States as world powers. ‘Only in England and North America,’ observes Linklater, ‘did 17th-century land become capital’; and that decisive change made a ‘vital contribution …to the development of free-enterprise capitalism in both places’. If anybody needed reminding how intimately this financial system, centred on London and New York, remained tied to the ownership of land, they need look no further than the world banking crisis of 2008, with its origins in the US market for subprime mortgages and the vast Tower of Babel of derivatives and uncollateralised debt that had been constructed upon them.

To investigate how the economic system that originated in Britain and the United States came to dominate the world, Linklater sets out on an ambitious venture to traverse five centuries, and as many continents, in seven-league boots, surveying en route the feudal practices of late Ming China, the methodical subdivision of South Australia (parcelled out in the 1830s by an inspired rogue and child-abductor, Edward Gibbon Wakefield), the end of serfdom in Tsarist Russia and the collectivisation of state property in Castro’s Cuba. Linklater, who died in November last year, was a polymath — historian, economist, explorer, anthropologist, student of political theory, among a dozen other interests — and this bulging portmanteau of skills and learning, always lightly borne, informs a book that is never less than fascinating in its range, argument and erudition.

Central to Linklater’s enquiry, and unifying his kaleidoscopic array of evidence and anecdote, is what he sees as the great paradox of capitalism: how was it that a system of land ownership based on selfishness (what’s mine is mine) ultimately came to produce far higher levels of generalised prosperity than any of its collectivist — and superficially more ‘altruistic’ — rivals?


The radical selfishness at the heart of the system was apparent from the outset.  In Tudor England, the assertion of exclusive title most often meant the ‘enclosure’ of lands — for the highly profitable business of grazing sheep — and the dispossession of former tenant farmers whose only claim to the land was ancient custom and usage. As thousands were reduced to destitution, critics denounced the new capitalists in language that has changed little between the time of Shakespeare and the advent of the Occupy movement: theirs was an ‘insatiable greediness of mind’, wrote one outraged Elizabethan, by which landowners had become ‘an universal wolf’.

That wolfish propensity has never quite gone away. Left unsupervised, the system’s greater wolves will not only devour the sheep, but their weaker lupine brethren as well. What muzzled, if never quite de-fanged, these wolfish tendencies was the recovery, in the course of the early 18th century, of a sense that the ownership of property carried with it moral obligations that kept the operation of greed within socially acceptable bounds. As expounded in the 1750s by Adam Smith — clearly one of Linklater’s intellectual heroes — there were ‘evidently some principles in [man] which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it’.

Of course, the market had its own self-correcting mechanisms, which Smith famously identified as ‘the invisible hand’.  But the invisible hand could only function in ‘a context of concern for the general welfare’. Government’s most important role, therefore, was to provide that ‘equal and impartial administration of justice’ — a justice which entailed not only equality before the law, but also a social dimension: in particular, the avoidance of excessive disparities of wealth, whereby the richest part of society — a de facto oligarchy — can rig the functioning of the market to favour itself. And at least until the 1980s, Linklater sees European and American governments having worked within these moral constraints.

The crisis of contemporary western capitalism, Linklater argues, is that it has slipped loose of these moral moorings. When one looks for the ‘invisible hand’ today, it is likely to be in the till. The villains in this piece are Friedrich Hayek and the postwar ‘Austrian economists’. The more they and their supporters ‘insisted [that] economic liberty was equivalent to personal freedom’ — and that taxation was ipso facto a constraint on personal freedom — ‘the quicker they eroded the moral standing of the common law system, with its guarantees of individual liberty based on a reciprocal responsibility of the propertied for the unpropertied’. Sharp reductions in the marginal rates of income tax for the very rich under Thatcher and Reagan, Linklater contends, not only increased social inequality; they also produced the gargantuan increases in national debt that currently bedevil the UK and US economies.

The result of these unprecedented levels of debt (in the US currently approaching 100 per cent of GDP) has been two dangerously anti-democratic transfers of power. The international bond markets have been empowered to the point where they are now ‘a more powerful influence on government policy than the electorate’. Still more seriously, ultimate responsibility for these prodigious state debts has been transferred from the generation that incurred them onto generations yet unborn. Where lies the principle of ‘No taxation without representation’ now?

Owning the Earth brilliantly anatomises many of the ethical failings that beset the financial system of which the piratical Sir Humphrey Gilbert was an unwittingly appropriate progenitor. But the high moral tone of the book’s anti-Thatcherite critique fails to compensate for the sometimes gaping holes in the economic argument. The claim, for instance, that Thatcher’s reduction in the top rates of taxation was responsible for the escalation of the national debt wholly ignores the massive increase during the same period in the demand for, and cost of, state-supplied services (notably the NHS).

Likewise, complex historical changes that took place over centuries, such as the decline of feudalism, are often oversimplified into a single dramatic ‘turning point’.  And while an international cast of political philosophers flit in and out of these pages — Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, Suárez, and Confucius among a host of others — their cameo turns often appear imperfectly rehearsed.

No occasional lapse of detail, however, can detract from the splendour of Linklater’s achievement. In an age of pigmy specialisation, there is something heroically larger-than-life about the book’s global range and polymath accomplishment. And though Linklater did not live long enough to enjoy its plaudits, Owning the Earth is an appropriate monument to its author’s distinguished mind and ardent humanity.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

John Adamson is a Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge, and the author of The Noble Revolt: The Overthrow of Charles I. Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £16.00, Tel: 08430 600033.

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Show comments
  • The first duty of a book reviewer is to check the “facts” a writer presents. Sometimes a book review fails in that task, for example I remember reading a book review in the Spectator where the reviewer just assumed-as-correct the author’s claim that the town of Jaffa was cleared of Muslims by the evil Jews in 1948 (driven-into-exile) – it sticks in my memory as I happened to have visited Jaffa recently and plenty of Muslims live there. However, I have never in my life read a review that fails so much in the basic function to be “critical” as that of Mr Adamson here. It is not a review, it is a fan letter. Indeed if the author of the book was not dead I would strongly suspect that he had written the “review” himself.
    Mr Adamson appears to have checked no “facts” in the late Andro Linklater’s book at all (Mr Adamson just assumes everything is correct – and passing it on as an echo not a reviewer.. Some facts would have been easy to check. For example, far from reducing government revenue (and therefore somehow making governments borrow money and pile up debt) the cuts in the top rate of income tax under President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (referred to as “Reagan and Thatcher” by Mr Adamson) INCREASED government revenue. If “greed” caused the present government debt it as the greed for government spending (or is picking the pockets of other people not “greedy”?).

    As for the house price bubble – this was not caused by “greed” either. If Mr Adamson (or the late Andro Linklater) actually knew anything about F.A. Hayek (by the way the idea that recent economic policy has been guided by the Austrian School is quite false) they would know that Hayek (like Ludwig Von Mises) repeated warned against the expansionary monetary policies of governments and their Central Banks. For recent work on this matter see “Housing: Boom and Bust” by Thomas Sowell (not an “Austrian”), “Meltdown” by Thomas Woods, and “Where Keynes Went Wrong” by Hunter Lewis.

    • Never mind that it’s Leftist policies that spurred and aided the housing boom and bust in the first place. Banks don’t typically lend to bad creditors unless Congress tells them they must, on pain of prosecution. When the loans were made and weren’t repaid it was not the bankers’ fault. It was the fault of legislators backing bad mortgages with national taxpayers’ money.

      And we all lost. I’ve been financially responsible all my life but I had to sell my house without any profit at all (perhaps a loss, considering my improvements of it), and all because of a utopian idiotic interfering Left-distorted housing bubble that went bust.

      • BarkingAtTreehuggers

        Tell us chunks, who failed first. Which mortgages went bad in Britain. Where are the insolvencies. Bad ‘loans’ made banks fail?

        You have absolutely no idea what you are talking about – so why write tripe?

        • Chris

          It was the US sub prime market loans that hit the UK. Not loan defaults in the UK. Northern Rock got hit due to the liquidity crisis.

          • La Fold

            How true. Essentially the banks were overlevergaed and when someone went “When am I getting my money back?” The whole ponzi house of cards needed to be held up.

  • I now turn to the central theme of Mr Adamson and the late Andro Linklater – essentially the same position as Mr Adamson just assumes everything the author says to be true. Utterly failing in the basic duty of a reviewer to check “facts” – to be critical. Although yes (in passing) Mr Adamson does make the point that government SPENDING has risen (although it actually rose much faster after Mrs Thatcher left office). He just (I repeat) assumes that such things as cutting the top rate of income tax reduced government revenue in Britain and the United States (I repeat – it increased it).
    Still to the central theme – land.
    It is simply not true that Britain invented land ownership (which goes back as far as one wishes to look – in very many countries) or that it was invented in the 16th or 17th centuries. The English economy of the Middle Ages was a commercial one as “greedy” as any other period in human history (see M.M. Poston “Medieval Economy and Society” – and this scholar was certainly not “right wing”) and much land ownership in most counties was a very commercial matter of individuals and families (see Alan Macfarlane “The Origins of English Individualism”).
    Even in Parliamentary enclosure of land (for once Mr Adamson gets it right – this was not a “land grab” as the title of the review absurdly claims, as it was a change in land USE nor land OWNERSHIP – those who lost use-rights had NOT owned the land previously) only amounted to a majority of land in one country – I am sitting in it (Northamptonshire). In some counties the percentage of land enclosed by Act of Parliament was actually 0% (zero). Nor is it true that all counties had followed a Open Field strip system of farming – even in the Middle Ages (in spite of Adamson-Linklater implying that private large scale farming is somehow a matter of recent centuries).
    As for “rejecting greed” and staying with peasant plots – such a policy was followed in much of Ireland (it did not end well in the 1840s).
    As for people being “driven off the land” – the number of people working on the land peaked in England and Wales in the mid 19th century – well AFTER the agricultural and industrial revolutions.
    Blaming the “greed” of tax payers and land owners for problems that are actually caused by government policy (the debt is caused by the out of control Welfare States, and the credit bubble economy is caused by the loose monetary policies of government controlled Central Banks) is not the act of an economist or an historian – it is the act of preacher, and a fake one at that. Someone who claims to speak for morality – but is most likely selling snake oil round the back of his revivalist wagon.
    If Mr Adamson thinks I am being harsh on his hero Andro Linklater – I would remind him of the insults (the lies) that the review shows being directed at “Reagan”, “Thatcher” and against distinguished scholars such as Frederick Hayek (and, no doubt, Ludwig Von Mises also).
    The history of land ownership is not as Andro Linklater claims (not in the Common Law lands – and not in the Roman Law lands either). And (to turn back to other matters) the Austrian School have not dominated recent economic policy (if only they had – then there would have been no Central Bank backed credit money expansion), and present economic problems are not the result of private “greed” – they are the result of government policy. Policy that has led to government spending taking up about half of the entire economy of most Western nations, and saturating the rest with regulations seeking to control every aspect of life (and YES taxation and economic regulation IS a reduction of personal freedom, whatever J.S. Mill may have said there is no distinction between the personal and the economic). And, finally, has reduced the currency and financial system to a credit bubble absurdity.

  • Oh fine, so now we see the wolf in sheep’s clothing: it’s all Thatcher’s and Reagan’s fault for NOT burgling the rich in broad daylight. The rich without whom companies would not be built, fields of endeavour would not be profitably ploughed, and millions of people would not be hired so as to earn the money that buys the good life. Well it’s a nice piece of window dressing, but I’m not buying — and I’m certainly not supporting the undermining of individual wealth and freedom by purchasing the work of this flawed, uninformed, and lazy thinker (yes, uninformed and lazy, despite the reviewer’s overly forgiving presentation).

    • rtj1211

      Have you ever worked for- or with the rich??

      I have and I’ll tell you this, several of them are the most parasitic people on earth.

      You need to define very carefully what ‘wealth creation’ means: it doesn’t mean electronic surveillance, bleeding highly qualified people dry etc etc.

      That’s called mafia extortion and it is just as prevalent as wealth creation in the West, believe you me.

      • La Fold

        I have too, in fact worked for the worlds largest Telecommunications company and Oil company. All I can say is that what you are talking about is absolute shoemakers.Good to see the myth of the Robber barons lives well on into the 21st century.

        • Tom M

          I personally worked as a shop steward in the 70s and further along was on the board on several middle ranking companies at one time or another. From my experience the group with the least integrity, the most spite, the most vengeful and those who had the least regard for anything like rules or agreements were without doubt the unions.

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