The First Thanksgivings: A Lesson in Socialism and Private Property Rights

My friend and colleague Ben Powell, who works with the Independent Institute and the Beacon Hill Institute and teaches economics at Suffolk University, has written an illuminating column on the Pilgrim’s early years and the tragic lesson they learned from their communal economic system. From the article:

Many people believe that after suffering through a severe winter, the Pilgrims’ food shortages were resolved the following spring when the Native Americans taught them to plant corn and a Thanksgiving celebration resulted. In fact, the pilgrims continued to face chronic food shortages for three years until the harvest of 1623. Bad weather or lack of farming knowledge did not cause the pilgrims’ shortages. Bad economic incentives did. In 1620 Plymouth Plantation was founded with a system of communal property rights. Food and supplies were held in common and then distributed based on “equality” and “need” as determined by Plantation officials. People received the same rations whether or not they contributed to producing the food, and residents were forbidden from producing their own food. Governor William Bradford, in his 1647 history, Of Plymouth Plantation, wrote that this system “was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.” The problem was that “young men, that were most able and fit for labour, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense.” Because of the poor incentives, little food was produced. Faced with potential starvation in the spring of 1623, the colony decided to implement a new economic system. Every family was assigned a private parcel of land. They could then keep all they grew for themselves, but now they alone were responsible for feeding themselves. While not a complete private property system, the move away from communal ownership had dramatic results. This change, Bradford wrote, “had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been.” Giving people economic incentives changed their behavior. Once the new system of property rights was in place, “the women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability.” Once the Pilgrims in the Plymouth Plantation abandoned their communal economic system and adopted one with greater individual property rights, they never again faced the starvation and food shortages of the first three years. It was only after allowing greater property rights that they could feast without worrying that famine was just around the corner. [. . .] It is customary in many families to “give thanks to the hands that prepared this feast” during the Thanksgiving dinner blessing. Perhaps we should also be thankful for the millions of other hands that helped get the dinner to the table: the grocer who sold us the turkey, the truck driver who delivered it to the store, and the farmer who raised it all contributed to our Thanksgiving dinner because our economic system rewards them. That’s the real lesson of Thanksgiving. The economic incentives provided by private competitive markets where people are left free to make their own choices make bountiful feasts possible.

We should keep this lesson in mind as more and more politicians and bureaucrats–and even so-called “conservative” economists–are clamoring for ever more central planning of our economic system. Pumping trillions of dollars in liquidity (created out of thin air!) and fiscal “stimulus” will only add to the distortions already built into the economy through Federal Reserve manipulation of interest rates and the money supply and government programs designed to encourage people to take on more debt than they could afford, and thus will only make the necessary correction to economic rationality longer and more severe. The malinvestments made during the “boom” would be weeded out and corrected much more quickly and less painfully if the government would simply get out of the way and stop trying to fix a problem it clearly does not understand. That said, I am still very grateful to live in a land with such relative economic and individual freedom. Wishing all a very happy Thanksgiving!