Imagine you wanted to do business on your merchant vessel in the west of Germany. It is the year 1259 and you pass Cologne with your barge. The city has just been granted the so-called staple right. Actually, you wanted to sell your goods further upriver. The new rule, however, forces you to first offer the goods here at Cologne at a generally unfavorable price for three days before you are allowed to continue your journey. In 1346, this will happen to you in Tallinn; in 1440, even in the distant shores of Poltva River near Lviv.
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Or let us consider a different scenario. Would you like to go shopping and treat yourself to some really nice clothes? Consider yourself lucky that you do not live in the 12th century. Noblemen may only buy chic clothes in different colors – and even they may have to wear only their family colors. For the lower classes, simple clothing is prescribed and the professional guild membership must be visible on their clothes. Apparel, according to the church – which began to “uniform”” its clergy in the 6th century – must be the image of the hierarchical divine world order.
You urgently need money and have to borrow it somewhere with interest, because otherwise who would lend it to you? After the 12th century, this is prohibited almost everywhere in Europe. The Bible forbids it, basta! Yes, the Jews are exempt from the ban and you can borrow from them. If there happens to be greater unwillingness to repay the debts, then the Jews are simply persecuted and killed, and one can put forward highly religious arguments for his actions. An extraordinarily dirty deal…
Most readers will probably no longer wish to live in the Middle Ages, following these few examples. Too strange and different, the worldview of that age seems to be compared to that of today. And we also know the consequences of the tight regulation of all possible aspects of life in these times. That there could be wealth for the mass of people seemed to be too impossible to imagine.
Still, in the 17th century, philosopher Thomas Hobbes would explain that the life of the then ordinary person of his age was “poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.
Three factors turned regulation into a tight prison, leaving little room for the individual to unfold his talents and knowledge, and in so doing took away society’s wealth-enhancing dynamics.
1) People were not seen as creative and independent individuals, but rather as part of social or moral categories to which they ideally belonged within the order of things. This would lead to an ever-closer compulsory determination of status and activity.
2) As a consequence, a moralization of the public and private space came into operation. Lifestyles based on a different set of values (as long as they did not threaten others) were seen as non-desirable and became subject of legal regulation.
3) Social improvement, economic momentum, and progress were not key objectives of policy development. Politics was – at least ideally – the realization of a given natural and unalterable idea of order.
But if humankind has taken a tremendous upswing since the late eighteenth century, it is because this tight corset, into which individuals have been forced, rapidly began to disintegrate. Ecclesiastical authority, aristocratic privilege and the guild system – they all fell prey to the Enlightenment. Staple rights, dress codes, and interest bans have been a thing of the past since the 19th century.
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