Next year at this time, Americans will mark the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower in 1620 and the subsequent founding of the Plymouth colony by English Separatists we know as the Pilgrims. They, of course, became the mothers and fathers of the first Thanksgiving.
The first few years of the settlement were fraught with hardship and hunger. Four centuries later they also provide us with one of history’s most decisive verdicts on the critical importance of private property. We should never forget that the Plymouth colony was headed straight for oblivion under a communal, socialist arrangement but saved itself when it embraced something very different.
In the diary of the colony’s first Governor, William Bradford, we can read about the settler’s initial arrangement: Land was held in common. Crops were brought to a common storehouse and distributed equally. For two years, every person had to work for everybody else (the community), not for themselves as individuals or families. Did they live happily ever after in this socialist utopia?
Hardly. The “common property” approach killed off about half the settlers. Governor Bradford recorded in his diary that everybody was happy to claim their equal share of production, but production only shrank. Slackers showed up late for work in the fields and the hard workers resented it. It’s called “human nature.”
The disincentives of the socialist arrangement bred impoverishment and conflict until, facing starvation and extinction, Bradford altered the system. He divided common property into private plots, and the new owners could produce what they wanted, and then keep or trade it freely.
Socialist failure was transformed into capitalist success, something that’s happened so often historically it’s almost monotonous. The “people over profits” mentality produced fewer people until profit—earned as a result of one’s care for his own property and his desire for improvement—saved the people. Progressives, take note.
Consider this as you feast at the Thanksgiving table this week: The people who raised the turkey didn’t do so because they wanted to help you out. The others who grew the cranberries and the yams didn’t go to the trouble and expense out of some altruistic impulse or because of some nebulous “sharing” fantasy.
Sacrificial rituals, even if they make you feel good, rarely bake a bigger pie. Charity certainly is laudable but it’s not an engine of production or prosperity. For that, you need profit, incentive and private property.
In North Korea and Venezuela, socialist regimes work to see that almost nobody makes a profit or owns a private business. There won’t be anything like widespread Thanksgiving dinners in either country this week and that’s no coincidence. I wonder if that lesson is still taught in schools these days; polls that suggest young people are attracted to socialism suggest maybe it isn’t.
I’ll be offering gratitude for more than just good food tomorrow. I’m going to give a prayerful thanks for private property and the profit motive which made abundance possible. When God instilled a measure of peaceful, productive self-interest into the human mind, he knew what he was doing.
Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education. He writes about exceptional people, including many from his book, “Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .