Skip to main content

Root cause of unemployment revealed

If people hold any theory at all about the cause of unemployment, it is usually based on the explanation put forward by Keynes in the 1930s, that the underlying cause is lack of aggregate demand. Most of those who refuse to buy that idea come up with other theories: workers have priced themselves out of jobs, technology has abolished the work or that the Chinese are undercutting everyone else.

As with an apparently incurable disease, solid research can help to establish the validity of a theory. The theory we hold to is that the underlying cause of unemployment is land enclosure. This is not an unreasonable proposition since even a beggar in the street needs to stake out a suitable pitch where there is a good flow of passers-by, whilst something as basic as growing vegetables takes a patch which can be cultivated. Ninety years ago, a lawyer called Frank Geary traced the link between land tenure and unemployment in England from the time of the arrival of the Normans; the early land enclosures following Magna Carta, the late Medieval enclosures in the wake of the Black Death and generally associated with a change from arable to pasture, the large scale enclosures of land that had been held by the Monasteries prior to the Dissolution of 1536-1539, properties which were distributed to become the estates of the English aristocratic families, and finally the Parliamentary enclosures of 1760 to 1840, which completed the process.

Using reliable and often primary sources, Geary demonstrates that there is a clear connection between these waves of enclosure and the accompanying waves of unemployment, as populations of the displaced peasantry drifted into the towns looking for a means to keep themselves alive and with a roof over their heads. Such was the extent of the problem that, by 1601, Poor Laws had to be introduced to provide a minimum sustenance for the destitute. After that, and through the troubled Civil War and Commonwealth period, things seem to have stabilised for a while, with large parts of the England still under the what was in principle the ancient Saxon system of strip fields and commons. These survivals were mopped-up by the Parliamentary enclosures, the evicted small-scale farmers thereby providing the cheap work force for the factory owners of the Industrial Revolution. This last stage is also the subject of “The Village Labourer” and “The Town Labourer”, by Hammond and Hammond, published just before World War 1. It is not a pretty story and reflects no credit on the British ruling classes and their level of care and concern for their fellow countrymen.

Geary’s book, “Land Tenure and Unemployment”, was published by Allen and Unwin in 1921 and has long been out of print. Thanks to assistance we have received, we are now able to make this text available as a searchable PDF in our Downloads section.