Without property rights and civil rights, little motivates the inventor or businessman to create and produce beyond his immediate need. (1)
Throughout most of human history, most people have been unable to produce much beyond what is necessary for survival. When excess wealth has been produced at various times and in various places, the wealth always become concentrated in the hands of a few powerful people leaving well over ninety percent of the population at bare subsistence living. Only within the past two or three centuries has life beyond the bare necessities become a reality for vast majorities of people in many countries. That prosperity is spreading unevenly to other nations. What changed?
The one truly significant example of property rights budding in the ancient world was Greek Civilization in during the middle portion of the first century B.C.E. Land was divided into small plots, decisions were made through democratic processes, and there was a highly egalitarian spirit among Greek citizens. Property rights were respected and institutionalized but property primarily consisted of land. The population eventually grew to a point where the number of people exceeded the land to support them. The only option was to annex more land but the Greek culture did not have conscription and could not form conquering armies without utterly transforming the very nature of their culture and that is precisely what happened.
No other civilization including Rome ever approximated the kind of respect for property and civil rights the Greeks shared during those few centuries. William Bernstein notes that populist movements emerged in places here and there, but never really took root. He points to the sabbath and jubilee codes of the Old Testament as an exceptional vision of an egalitarian society in terms of individual and civil rights but rightly notes that there is no evidence that the Israel ever abided by these codes. (2)
European Middle Ages
With collapse of the Roman Empire in the mid-first century, Europe dissolved into a myriad of feudal estates. Life became very violent and dangerous. People gathered in communities and gave their allegiance to a lord in return for protection. The only unifying institution across Europe was the Church. The Church technically owned the land and the feudal lord ruled a region on behalf of the church. These lords eventually formed alliances with other lords installing regional rulers or kings.
Two factors acted as a check on the power of Kings and Queens. One was competition. If a King or Queen became too oppressive for the aristocracy, they might unite in opposition or form alliances with the King’s or Queen’s enemies. Second was the church. The Church was the de facto bank of the time. Oppose the Church and you might find yourself high and dry in a time of financial need. This is not to mention the power of the Church to excommunicate and inflict other punishment on rulers. Of course, the Church could also employ these measures against barons who rebelled against a ruler the Church favored.
Monarchs were required to pay an annual fee to the church for the privilege of ruling. King John of England rebelled against this idea but finally acceded after being excommunicated by the Pope. Shortly thereafter he embarked on a disastrous military campaign to take Normandy and ran out of funds. John engaged in wide variety of injustices to collect the funds he needed from his subjects. The barons united against him and John quickly found himself in a dilemma. He was hardly in the good graces of the Pope and his barons were united against him. He was forced to make a deal.
The barons drew up a list of demands called the Magna Carta and forced the King to acquiesce. The Magna Carta introduced such ideas as due process, trial by a jury, and taxation only with representation. Most notably, it made the King and the government subject not only to civil law (legislated law) but common law, or being governed by time honored traditions for the ordering of human affairs. This placed significant limitations on the ability of the king to arbitrarily make changes to law.
The Magna Carta did not come to full flower for at least another five hundred years. Kings resisted and challenged it at every turn but over time the Great Charter prevailed. Possibly contributing to its victory was the Plague in the middle of the fourteenth century. Approximately a third of Europe died in the Plague. The effect in England was that many of the aristocracy were left without sufficient labor to maintain there estates. The price of labor soared. Attempts to freeze wages and bind peasants to the estates failed. Many peasants prospered and some assumed control over estates abandoned by the wealthy either because death or bankruptcy. The Plague had the effect of increasing the number of people with an economic stake in society across Europe but especially in England. A more widely shared economic stake also meant a more widely shared determination to protect that stake.
(1) William J. Bernstein, The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World was Created, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004. 52.
(2) Ibid, 56.