March 01, 2004

Feudalism: why not?

In Property we've been meticulously covering the rich variety of estates that originated in English feudal land law. Every law student has to do it sooner or later.

But I like it. I don't like memorizing the differences between contingent and vested remainders, heavens no, but I like delving into the feudal past and tracing its influence to modern times. I like words like "feoffment" and "disseisin."

I know. Geek.

Anyway, I asked my colleagues at dinner a few weeks ago whether they'd like to return to a feudal society. Straightforward question, that. But judging from the uncomprehending stares and expressions of shock, not too many law students have given the question of re-establishing feudalism any serious thought.

Why not? Haven't they ever read a George R. R. Martin novel?

Seriously; we're indoctrinated from birth in the belief that the way things are now are the best they've ever been. I don't believe it. I think some things were much better under feudalism. Such as:

  1. Absence of the pernicious belief that all land (not to mention everything else as well) is fungible.
  2. Absence of the belief that it's all alienable, too.
  3. More heraldry, and tapestries. Nowadays, even at the wonderfully Gothic campus here at Michigan, we call our student sections by such rich and sonorous titles as 'EFGH' and 'IJKL,' and we don't even get to wear robes with our section's crest on them, like the Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws at Hogwarts.
  4. The conviction that who you were mattered, not what you had. I know; this is often cited in terms of the greater social mobility of modern life, and the semi-permanent caste system under feudalism. But I think this story is overly biased. Social mobility today is more mythical than we like to admit. And no society has ever completely rejected the idea of meritocracy. The paths to the top under feudalism are unfamiliar to us, but they existed, and they were traveled upon. And for those not on their way to the 'top,' at least they had a place for themselves, however modest, under feudalism. These same people in modern times are often completely and utterly dispensible.
  5. Less 'freedom' under feudalism. What? Less freedom is good? Uh, yes. Hell yes, in fact. Freedom is a lot like money. When it's pursued as an end in itself, it turns out to be empty and unsatisfying. Modern libertarians, unable to identify anything that freedom is good for, out of fear of infringing someone's freedom, resort to the claim that freedom is good in itself. But it isn't. The problem with modern life is not that we aren't blessed with freedom, but that we're blessed with freedom in a world where every choice, every lifestyle, is just as good as every other. The only argument for any choice is always just that it 'feels better for me.' Which is fine, as far as it goes. But when the biggest choices in life have to be defended on the same grounds that we defend our choice of toothpaste flavors, we've got a problem.
  6. Castles.

Some things have gotten worse since the feudal era, as you can see, but obviously not everything has. We have made some progress:

  1. Antibiotics.
  2. Broadband internet.
  3. The idea of the intrinsic dignity of the person (however much this idea has been subverted by the coincident beliefs in infinite alienability).
  4. The move away from an excessive reliance on 'faith' (however much this has been replaced by our idolatrous worship of the idea of unlimited economic growth and the myth of progress).
  5. The video game DOOM (circa 1996).

Posted by Carey at March 1, 2004 08:10 PM

1. Go to Oxford. Then you will get to wear robes in buildings after which the Michigan Law School was patterned. And sit at "high table". And study feudalism in the Bodleian. And all sorts of other cool things.

2. a MUST: Take Simpson's English Legal History class. You would really like it.

Posted by: Jordan at March 1, 2004 09:17 PM

Sorry- the last comment was supposed to be entitled: "Suggestions"

Posted by: Jordan at March 1, 2004 09:18 PM

I guess the most immediate criticism that comes to mind would be that the ability you possess to even think about this line of reasoning is afforded to you because of social mobility, and not the chance of birth. I know this is a tongue in cheek post, but when the obvious is staring you in the face... :)

Also, would you really want to live as an Unsullied? Or a Stark? Or live out a second-class citizenship a la Jon? (Damn good books. I can't wait for "A Feast For Crows.")

Posted by: Adam at March 1, 2004 11:20 PM

There should be some sort of robes for different sections. You should recommend that to the Dean.

Posted by: Dante at March 2, 2004 12:58 AM

Jordan: I've got Simpson for property, and I'm glad I do. This doesn't replace the need to take English Legal History with him, it merely gives me more evidence for the necessity of doing so.

Adam: The greater freedom of thought that has historically accompanied the move away from feudalism is, I agree, a great thing. I'm not convinced, though, that feudalism implies either that our ability to hypothesize should be limited, or that our actual social mobility should be any less than what it is now. It probably would be less, but let's not compare feudalism with the "ideal" of modern capitalism. Let's instead compare it with the actual version of it, in which social mobility is less prevalent than our myths take it to be.

As for the Starks, and Jon, I'm actually naiive enough to think that they've all got very interesting (and meaningful) lives...

(Congratulations on the Jessup!)

Dante: Good idea. If I were Dean, I would rename all the sections and commission big tapestries with heraldric crests for each section...

Posted by: Carey at March 2, 2004 10:22 AM

This post cracks me up! For years I've been kicking around a thought experiment just like this. What would a feudal society be like without serfs, where every individual was free to choose his or her own liege lord? It would be sort of like democracy, except instead of electing everyone else's leaders, you'd elect your own. Let's buy a state and try it out...

Posted by: Mark Ashton at March 2, 2004 01:20 PM

To elaborate about what I said at dinner: (and respond point by point)

1) I don't think that there really is a belief that all land is fungible.

2) The fact that all land is alienable can be bad, but it also can be good. Very few people would be able to own a home otherwise. The bad asp;ects of alienability can be dealt with by a progressive taxation system and strict zoning and environmental protection laws.

3) You can wear a robe if you want; It's a free country. I'll stick with my T-shirt and jeans thank you very much.

4) If I'm not mistaken, the only way that most people could work their way up under feudalism was to join the church and vow never to have sex, removing talent from the gene pool. What an awful exchange. Do you have an ancestor on the Mayflower? I don't. The only way that 99.9% of us are here at Michigan Law is because we (or our recent ancestors) worked their way up. My grandfather was a high school dropout. My father went to City College of NY. I went to Williams College. If I have a kid, s/he might go to Harvard (Happy, Julie, I used non-sexist words). That's upward mobility, and many of us have similar stories. Honestly, do you truly think that most mideval peasants lived meaningful lives.
5) Before you tell us all that freedom is bad, have you spoken to any homosexuals or members of religious minorities lately. My people spent the feudal years being burned at the stake because of their faith. That's what a lack of freedom means.
6) Try heating a castle.

As far as the good things, like antibiotics, that you talk about. If it hadn't been for social mobility, many of these breakthroughs wouldn't have come about. Jonas Salk was a Jewish immigrant. Under feudalism he would have been forced to remain a peasant, if he had even been allowed to live. Instead, he created the polio vaccine. Under feudalism, the peasants couldn't get an education, and the Kings would have no incentive to strive for anything. It's no coincidence that the industrial revolution began as feudalism was dying.

Posted by: Larry at March 2, 2004 08:16 PM

Silly Larry. Carey's not talking about historical feudalism. He's talking about something similar but different. For instance, if I were Feudal Overlord of Michigan Law School, you would be treated to a kinder, gentler feudalism, where merit and hard work could earn you all the chances you want to advance as my lackey.

(Was that sufficiently elitist for you?)

Posted by: Heidi at March 2, 2004 09:28 PM

All the stuff about freedom... *yawn*

But come on, people! Haven't you SEEN the Harry Potter movies?!?

Those Hogwarts robes kick muggle ass!


Posted by: Carey at March 2, 2004 10:24 PM

If I were feudal overlord of Michigan Law School ....

Julie would probably think I would kick out all of the women. While that would raise the average intellectual strength of the law school (J.K.), it would make the place very dull, so that I wouldn't do.

Carey would probably think I would knock down the Lawyer's Club to replace it with some ugly '70s structure. Don't worry Carey, I'm not that aesthetically impaired.

What I would do... turn the snack bar into an actual bar...Install a pool table in the LC rec room...start law school ultimate frisbee and broomball teams...Make every law student volunteer for the Kerry campaign.
Larry for Feudal Overlord '04

Posted by: Larry at March 2, 2004 10:33 PM

No, no, no! Larry, you can't campaign for feudal overlord. You have to claim it. Arrgh! It's mine. I thought of it first. You'll have to fight me and my flunkies, Dean Caminker and Dean Zearfoss, to try and wrest control from me!

Posted by: Heidi at March 3, 2004 06:39 PM