Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Modern Britons Worse Off Than Medieval Serfs?

Commenting on yesterday's post about tyranny in Nanny State Britain, Broken raises an interesting question:

"I wonder if anyone who knows enough would care to explore whether, when some of the most oppressive living under previous regimes when titles or rank meant something, were they not somewhat better off than they are now? Was ancient feudalism any worse?"

Off the top of my head, I can name at least three points on which feudalism was less oppressive than the government which rules England today. To be specific (and open to correction from anyone who can prove otherwise), I see the following relative advantages for an English medieval commoner:

1. The nanny state, via gun control laws, makes self-defense against criminals exceedingly difficult and dangerous. The balance of power is horribly tilted in favor of evil when a gun-wielding thug confronts a law-abiding victim. Put another way, modern Britons are legally required to give a deadly technological advantage to criminals. Medieval commoners might have been forbidden to use swords, but they were free to use knives, bows and arrows, cudgels, quarterstaffs, pitchforks, and axes against crooks. The wicked enjoyed no great advantage in weaponry. A man skilled with the quarterstaff could hold his own against a swordsman. Crime was thus better kept in check, and ordinary people did not live in helpless terror of common hooligans.

2. The nanny state arbitrarily prohibits (or interferes with) certain acts of kindness and mercy, from babysitting a friend's child without a government license to saving neighbors from a burning house. Not only were commoners in the Middle Ages permitted to help each other in these ways, but it would never have entered the mind of a medieval sheriff, baron, or king to forbid such things.

3. The nanny state claims the authority to micromanage the family in the name of health, safety, and education, even to the point of installing cameras in people's homes, and forbidding parents to supervise their own children on the playgrounds. No sphere of ordinary life is sacrosanct from the official snoops and busybodies. The medieval home was not inviolate but, generally speaking, a commoner's family life was not the subject of government scrutiny unless there was suspicion of fomenting or abetting rebellion.

This is not to imply that medieval life was better on the whole. In most material things, modern Britons, even the poor ones, live better than feudal monarchs. Legal protections against torture and imprisonment without trial, taken for granted today, were unknown in the darkest periods of English feudalism. The class system remains, but its present inequities (if inequities they may be called) are of a purely social nature. It is nothing like the ancient Anglo-Saxon order wherein a commoner who killed a nobleman was put to death, but a nobleman who killed a commoner merely paid a fine. People are free to emigrate from the UK, whereas the serfs of old could not even move freely within the country, being bound to the land almost like chattel property.

But modern socialism, no less than feudalism, imagines a status society where the individual's place is determined by the state. Socialism has spawned regimes more brutal and despotic than any medieval government, in large part because as a modernist ideology it rejects Christian moral restraints on political power. The violations of personal and property rights enumerated above show that Britain is moving toward a re-imposition of serfdom, albeit on a new pattern where the serfs are permitted the illusory freedom of voting for which master shall rule over them. Whether this is dictated from London or Brussels, the outcome will be the same.

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