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Westminster and Common Land

In its treatment of the 8th Commandment, the Larger Catechism lists “unjusts inclosures and depopulations” as a “sin forbidden.” This is an expression that is relatively unfamiliar to modern American readers, but one which has a very long and significant history in political and economic literature. A “short” history is available here, and an even shorter one is here. In a nutshell, the enclosure movement was a step towards the modern reduction of “the commons” in the name of both private property and the needs of big industry. That Westminster would oppose this is not surprising, given that it is a mostly premodern document holding moderately traditional views (usury, of course, has its own complicated history, as do the infamous topics of resistance and regicide; even so, Westminster does not espouse the common Enlightenment political concepts valued today). Still, it left me with some questions and observations.

First, what would the “normative” situation be in Westminster’s context? How was common land governed? Who determined which land was common, and how? Clearly some common land is approved and deemed “just” by Westminster, but where can one learn more about this establishment?

Secondly, are all forms of enclosure “unjust”? John Brown of Haddington would seem to suggest that all of the government-driven enclosures of the day were condemned:

Q,. How are men guilty of public oppression 1 — A. By unjust inclosures, depopulations, forestalling, ingressing, monopolies, unjust taxes, &c. Mic. ii. vi. Isa. v.

Q. What are unjust inclosures 1 — A. The inclosing of fields common to a city or country, for the interest of one or a few, under a pretence of right, Mic. ii. 2.

(An essay towards an easy, plain, practical and extensive explication of the Assembly’s shorter catechism. ed. 1854, 262)

Thirdly, how have so many conservative Presbyterian and Reformed thinkers come to believe that the existence of common land is itself theft? What does this clause in the Larger Catechism teach us on the evolving understanding of property in our tradition?

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

4 replies on “Westminster and Common Land”

These are good questions, and I don’t know the historian’s answer to them.

But obviously part of the problem with “commons” in land is that it, when certain other circumstances are present, is wasteful of scarce resources (which means all of society enjoys a lower standard of living, and such diminution is always disproportionately harder on the poor). I say “when certain other circumstances are present” because, contrary to what might be expected of me, I’m *not* taking a hard-line libertarian position on this. I’m not rejecting all commons per se, I’m just pointing out that the “tragedy of the commons” is a real thing and that when it happens it’s bad for society. So, depending on how common you think the tragedy is (haha), the concern is not necessarily driven by a feeling that commons are per se theft. It might be driven instead by a claim that doing a balancing test of costs and benefits makes many commons situations a bad social policy as compared to privatization. It’s not a matter of natural right so much as policy due to the way commons work vs. how private management of scarce resources works.

Sorry, meant to answer your last question.

“What does this clause in the Larger Catechism teach us on the evolving understanding of property in our tradition?”

One thing I think it teaches us is simply that the understanding of property has evolved from reacting against its surface appearance where property claims often seem to be little more than private claims of grabbiness to a more nuanced understanding where many people think (thanks to Adam Smith and the forerunners he systematized) of private property as something that actually in its own way by a sort of designed accident helps society beyond the private grabber himself.

It used to be commons = everyone benefits / private = only the owner benefits

But now it’s more like commons = everyone might be harmed / private = everyone might benefit (not just the owner)

With this shift in understanding of the “facts”, the same moral doctrines apply differently.

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