Utopia: Economy of 1515-1516 and the wool industry in England
Raphael has a lot to say here.
He complains about noblemen who don’t do anything useful to contribute to the economy. And then he complains about noblemen’s retainers who are more numerous and also don’t do anything useful to contribute to the economy. And then he complains about the amount of resources wasted on standing armies.
Sheep: Per Wikipedia, wool and cloth spun from wool were the chief exports of medieval England. Raphael doesn’t believe that this is a good thing for the average Englishman. He complains that the nobles enclose land for pasture for sheep grazing, kicking out the peasant farmers and leaving them with no way to feed themselves.
Because sheep herding is much less labor intensive than farming crops, converting farmland to sheep pastures results in mass unemployment. The peasants don’t even enjoy the benefits of cheap wool, because sheep farming is controlled by a few rich men who can raise prices because they have an “oligopoly” (that’s the word that Paul Turner uses in his translation).
Towards the end of Book 1, Raphael praises the “communist” economy of Utopia. I think the best thought in all of Book 1 is this critique of capitalism:
[W]hen everyone’s entitled to get as much for himself as he can, all available property, however much there is of it, is bound to fall into the hands of a small minority, which means that everyone else is poor. And wealth will tend to vary in inverse proportion to merit. The rich will be greedy, unscrupulous, and totally useless characters, while the poor will be simple, unassuming people whose daily work is far more profitable to the community than it is to them.
That’s right, you can’t cure poverty by growing GDP! Thomas More saw that 500 years ago. That’s why I’ve made the grim prediction that automation and robots will increase poverty even as they, paradoxically, create an abundance of material goods with minimal human labor.
RAPHAEL: … I’m quite convinced that you’ll never get a fair distribution of goods, or a satisfactory organization of human life, until you abolish private property altogether. So long as it exists, the vast majority of the human race, and the vastly superior part of it, will inevitably go on labouring under a burden of poverty, hardship, and worry. …
MORE: I disagree. I don’t believe you’d ever have a reasonable standard of living under a communist system. There’d always tend to be shortages, because nobody would work hard enough. In the absence of a profit motive, everyone would become lazy, and rely on everyone else to do the work for him. Then, when things really got short, the inevitable result would be a series of murders and riots, since nobody would have any legal method of protecting the products of his own labour – especially as there wouldn’t be any respect for authority, or I don’t see how there could be, in a classless society.
RAPHAEL: You’re bound to take that view, for you simply can’t imagine what it would be like – not accurately, at any rate. But if you’d been with me in Utopia, and seen it all for yourself, as I did – I lived there for more than five years, you know, and the only reason why I ever left was that I wanted to tell people about the New World – you’d be the first to admit that you’d never seen a country so well organized.
Well that’s an interesting exchange. More, pretending to be himself, makes an argument that Ayn Rand will make 441 years in the future, and Raphael responds that you should believe him because he’s seen it with his own eyes. Except that Utopia is a fake country that doesn’t exist.
Which character does the real More actually believe?