From the Witt – Last time in Rent History: Part 1 I gave a very generalized history of how the relationship between landowners and renters began and evolved. Hopefully without being too specific or detailed I can add a little perspective on how we got to where we are as a society when it comes to our freedom to rent, and, in a basic sense, where the capital to rent sprang from in the first place. This article also should highlight the ideological perspectives that make renting practicable.
For one, any history of rent is complete without a history of free property, or, what I would call “the basic rights of the (land) owner.” Renting—unless you include peonage systems like serfdom—can never exist without the landowner having some guarantees of protection under the law. Among these would include protection from violence, dispruption, etc., on one’s own property, the right to evict tenants negligent on their rent, and the right not to be taxed so heavily you can’t reasonably hold on to your property (okay this one’s less clear). The commitment to these “rights” took up root in western thought gradually starting around the middle of the last millennium in Europe. Unfortunately, in and before this era most people lived without any governmental guarantee to their property or goods. In other words, at any time a king, lord, or anyone with enough men or weapons could rob you without threat of reprisal. Rent, and rent collection, were most often a matter of good faith or brute force.
Like many ideologies in history, the “free property” ideology rose to the forefront of social philosophy only after it had been backed and championed by force—in this case, the overwhelming force of the landowners—and later the middle class—which in many instances preluded revolutionary new popular governments or at least curbed royal authority.
The first major example of the demand for the right of free property, or at least freer property, was the signing of the Magna Charta, Latin for “Great Charter,” signed at Runnymede in England in 1215. Basically, the noblemen in England had become so powerful in contrast to the King that they forced him to agree in writing to several points, including their right not to be taxed so heavily they would have to sell their lands off to the crown. With these “rights” more guaranteed, these massively wealthy aristocrats were free to rent out huge tracts of land or country estates to whomever they pleased, and to their own profit. Nevertheless, since advancement in class was almost impossible in this period, they rented principally to other large landowners of similar status. Occasionally even the King would rent from these magnates, who not uncommonly began to rival their monarchs in wealth and property. Freedom of property, then, when granted to these nobles, enhanced their entrepreneurial flexibility and precipitated not only renting but a general economic surge—not to mention an immense increase in their personal wealth.
Unsurprisingly, these nobles were unenthusiastic about sharing their riches. Their joint hegemony with the King over vast amounts of the country’s wealth meant generations of the lower classes in perpetual poverty, regardless of skill or talent. Social and business advancement was nearly impossible. Most people simply never saw any money.
That all begin to change in England in the late fifteenth century, when an increase in trade among other things precipitated the rise of a healthy middle class. As the amount of national income increased, more and more citizens could get their hands on it. This wasn’t so much of a redistribution of wealth as much of an example of the power of freedom of property. Many nobles still hoarded their wealth, but the classes became more flexible, and “new” men could rise to prominence and power without any noble birth. Predictably the renting business exploded, with new more people able to afford to rent the cheaper things, like an animal or a carriage or a room. By allowing their “lessers” to own property more freely, they transformed England from a stagnant medieval economy to a burgeoning, highly modernized one.
Thus, renting—and the entire economy—was stimulated by the ideology of freedom of property. At this time, however, the notion was still fledgling. It would take centuries of gradual incorporation into laws and customs and the work of several prominent writers and politicians to make it stick, in the way we take it for granted today.