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?