Yesterday I had the pleasure of being in the company of some interesting, well-informed conservatives (and are there any other kind?). We’d gathered ostensibly as a book club to talk about Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (a book I found informative, but that had a conceit and coyness that irritated me). As is the case with all good book clubs, though, the conversation took on a life of its own, so that the chapter about potatoes triggered an examination of the hereditary system in Ireland under English rule.
One of the attendees pointed out that part of the problem was that Ireland, rather than having a primogeniture approach to land inheritance (an approach that mandates that property goes only to the eldest son), had a system by which all children were entitled to equal parts of the land. The result was that land became effectively became non-arable. Multiple siblings meant the land was broken up into such tiny plots, that, unless the siblings were able to work in concert, it was impossible for anyone to make a living off of a given piece of land. Potatoes were ultimately the only food that could be grown in these small spaces, and we know how that ended.
An Irishman who was at the meeting told us that this approach was not the traditional Irish way but, instead, was an English law imposed to ensure that no single person or group in Ireland could aggregate too much power and become a meaningful challenge to English rule. While I hadn’t known this about Irish law, I immediately recognized the principle. France, too, had no primogeniture, which protected the crown from a single noble family becoming too powerful. (England’s War of the Roses showed the tremendous risks of feuding power factions.)
Louis XIV further strengthened the Crown’s hand by building Versailles. That is, he went beyond breaking up the great land holdings and actually removed the nobles from the land altogether. As with Ireland, this approach did not ultimately work out very well. While the nobles lived their hedonistic, politically incestuous lives at Versailles, the peasantry, trying to survive on land that the owners completely ignored, coalesced into a burning revolutionary fire.
At this point, I showed my mastery of the obvious by stating that a tyrannical government always has to enact policies that prevent any one person or group from obtaining too much wealth and strength. Even as the word’s came out of my mouth, I thought of Obama and the Democrats. Breaking up power structures is precisely what their stated policies are aimed at accomplishing.
They’re planning on taxing the rich to death, destroying industry, and enacting policies that ensure that, like the nobles at Versailles, the American people are utterly dependent on the government for all benefits. With that system in place, Americans will quickly stop paying attention to, and ultimately lose interest in, opportunities to create their own wealth. As long as benefits are drizzled over the masses, with no single group able to amass power, the ruling class can maintain itself for a very, very long time — although history indicates that it will almost inevitably end with a high mortality bang.