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A Comparison of Socioeconomic and Institutional Methods of Explaining the Rise of Capitalist Democracy in England (Moore vs. North & Weingast)

July 18th, 2010

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The arguments of Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy and of North and Weingast’s Constitutions and Commitment: The Evolution of Institutions Governing Public Choice in Seventeenth-Century England on the genesis of capitalist democracy in England mostly supplement each other by examining different variables and processes that relate to England’s evolution. Both works stipulate that England’s capitalist democracy entailed social elements that sought a free economy and did so by political means. Calling said elements the “commercial class,” Moore explains how this class emerged, came to power, and saw its policies implemented. North and Weingast, however, explain how political institutions evolved to allow a free market economy and how the commercial class’ interests translated into a fair, balanced, and checked English government. In a sense, Moore explains how initial conditions established the commercial impulse that would eventually drive free market democracy and how the impulse came to manifest itself politically and legally. North and Weingast, arguing on the precondition of the existence of the commercial class, explain how the evolution of political institutions, driven by economic motives, created a balanced, accountable government that led to a politically and economically free society. Thus the two arguments overlap in how the commercial impulse arrived at the doors of government, but supplement each other as one explains the cause chiefly using socioeconomic variables as the other explains the effects chiefly using institutional variables.

In attempts to explain the rise of capitalism in England, Moore uses socioeconomic conditions, the rise of the commercial impulse and availability of resources, whereas North and Weingast use institutional changes in government, the regularization of public finance. Thus the two arguments don’t necessarily contradict each other; rather, they examine different possible causes of the same phenomenon. Moore argues that market influences, the possibility of enclosing land, difficulty in finding cheap commodities, and the devolution of the connection between landownership and legal power all led to the emergence of the commercial impulse. The booming land, wool, and grain markets along with high food prices and a labor shortage, Moore argues, developed a need to make profit in English agrarian society. Moreover, the high price of resources and widespread availability markets inspired a once agrarian class of people to produce for economic gains rather than for sustenance. In addition, because “the land and tenurial relations based on it had largely ceased to be the cement binding together lord and man,” (Moore, 5) land thereafter came to be viewed as a source of revenue rather than one of political or legal power. Moore points to the burgeoning land market and rise of enclosures as evidence reaffirming his claim that public perception concerning land ownership shifted to one of capitalism. Furthermore, he asserts that the commercial impulse along with the aforementioned variables of resources were the chief causes behind the growth of a capitalist economy. Thus, Moore examines resource endowments and evolution of agricultural profitability to explain the growth and success of capitalist commercialism. On this point he and North and Weingast disagree.

To North and Weingast, the success of commercial capitalism was a result of government’s establishment of a “relevant set of rights…[and] a credible commitment to them,”(North and Weingast, 803) derived from their assertion that “the development of free markets must be accompanied by some credible restrictions on the state’s ability to manipulate economic rules to the advantage of itself and its constituents”(North and Weingast, 808). They argue that with restrictions on the Crown’s ability to practice arbitrary power in the pursuit of public finance and renege on loans, English government earned financial credibility and was therefore able to finance expenditures. This shift to free flowing credit to government trickled down to the public economy beginning when “the Bank of England began private operations…[along with] numerous other banks”(North and Weingast, 825). Thus North and Weingast argue that government credibility led to free flowing credit in the public economy. As a result of this influx of available credit, they argue, private enterprises were able to create new and grow existing businesses. Although the two arguments diverge when explaining the general reasons for capitalism’s success, Moore’s argument is mainly aimed at explaining why capitalism emerged in the first place whereas that of North and Weingast explains why capitalism boomed once it became embedded in the water supply. The two arguments have a more supplementary and overlapping relation when explaining why capitalist interests percolated government and succeeding in translating their philosophy into law.

While explaining how capitalist democracy came about in England, Moore examines how social changes affected policy and the composition of Parliament while North and Weingast examine how changes in financial policy and the new composition of Parliament affected English government. Thus, North and Weingast begin where Moore ends: at changes in financial and monetary policy and a new composition of Parliament. In Moore and North and Weingast’s arguments, these changes in government are viewed as an effect and cause, respectively. Moore argues that the disenfranchisement and resulting dissolution of the peasantry, royal infringement upon free market, and the transformation of Parliament from an exclusive body of hereditary nobles to a “committee of landlords” (Moore, 21) led to a Parliamentary opposition to the Crown that resulted in a government that promoted capitalist democracy. As land became increasingly necessary for successful agrarian capitalism, the practice of enclosing peasant-owned or common land became regular. This practice not only allowed resourceful peasants, or yeomen, to participate in commercial capitalism, but also led to rapidly decreasing peasant population that would have opposed modernization. Moore argues that the Crown strove to protect the peasantry from enclosures to ameliorate public discord by using prerogative mandates to reallocate the jurisdiction of property rights disputes from common law courts to the Star Chamber.

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