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The Myth of Arcadia

For many early European immigrants, the United States offered the hope of starting a new life free of the institutionalized inequality of Europe, which was a legacy of feudalism. In the case of England in the 18th century, hereditary landlords took over what had been common land through the process of enclosure, which prevented peasants from making a living growing crops, grazing livestock, hunting and fishing. Enclosure was an illegal land grab sanctioned by Parliament to help landlords establish private title to former common land. The appropriation of public land for private benefit represented the institutionalization of property rights in England, and it had the consequence of forcing dispossessed peasants to move to the cities in search of wage labor. In the cities, this flood of workers, whose labor contributed to the Industrial Revolution, were paid subsistence wages and lived in appalling conditions with many dying of illness, disease, and overwork. The era of capitalism had begun, and with it came the transfer of power from the landed gentry to the urban industrial and merchant class, one living off of land and rents in the countryside, and the other living off of a sea of dispossessed workers in the cities. In other parts of Europe, the transition of power from the aristocracy to the newly-minted merchant class occurred at different rates, but one thing was clear: property was in their hands. Aside from religious persecution, many in the old world left because access to land or property was forever out of their reach.

 

What the United States offered them was the hope of land and the ability to make a living without having to work for or rent lodging from others. It was this economic independence in an unsettled, pristine, rural Arcardia that immigrants to the United States sought: they wanted to be lords of their own estates. And while many initial settlers were able to secure land for themselves and establish themselves as independent workers (aside from slaves and the many Europeans who paid the cost of their trip through debt peonage and indentured servitude), this way of life again disappeared after the Second Industrial Revolution when skilled independent workers found themselves bankrupted by mass production, absorbed into cities, and again forced to work for wages. But the dream of having one’s own castle persisted, and ultimately morphed into the large lot single family home (and in extreme cases the McMansion) in a subdivision away from the city, like the feudal lords of old. This dream, which has come to be called the American Dream, has been passed on to successive generations of immigrants from all over the world. Americans cling to the idea of having their own little estate with a front and backyard and fence to surround and delineate it from their neighbors (with the moat no longer necessary), because they believe it represents freedom and independence. Unfortunately, this is not the case, a fact that becomes clear every day when they get in the car and commute to the city to work for a wage for other people, on which the payment of their mortgage depends.

 

The problem with private property as an institution is that it promotes inequality. Private property is always primarily in the hands of the oldest living generation; and though the constitution, or social state of a country, may change, the status quo generation is last to accept that change. So it is ironic that a country founded on the ideals of democracy, freedom and equal opportunity, ends up repeating the mistakes of the past, and embracing a petty bourgeois neo-feudalism by “enclosing” land through restrictive zoning and no-growth NIMBYism to prevent new arrivals and subsequent generations from having an affordable place to live, or the possibility of owning a home of their own. As the landed gentry and merchant class of old Europe knew, along with those who fled to America to find land of their own, private property is the ultimate source of power.  

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