President Obama has failed to learn the simple basic lesson that the Pilgrims, who established the tradition of Thanksgiving Day in 1623 (not 1621, as often claimed), learned the hard way. The bounteous harvest they were gratefully celebrating on that day was preceded by years of starvation. They arrived in mid-December 1620, and half of them died the first year. Though the Indians helped them survive, the colonists were chronically short of food, and their numbers continued to dwindle.
Under the Mayflower Compact, which governed the colony, “all profits and benefits that are got by trade, working, fishing or any other means” were community property in the “common stock” of the colony. And “all such persons as are of this colony are to have their meat, drink, apparel and all provisions out of this common stock.” People were required to put in everything they could—they were forbidden from growing their own food—and to take out only what they needed. It was a policy of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” centuries before Karl Marx seduced millions of people with those words.
The communal system was such a failure that in the spring of 1623 the Pilgrims feared they would not survive another poor harvest. “So they began to think,” wrote the colony's governor William Bradford, “how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest among them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves....And so assigned to every family a parcel of land.....This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted then otherwise would have been by any other means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content.”
Far from making the people “happy and flourishing,” the communal system, wrote Bradford, “was found to breed confusion and discontent, and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.” Not surprisingly,“young men that were able and fit did repine [complain] that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men's wives and children, without recompense. The strong, or men of parts, had no more division of food, clothes, etc. than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labor, and food, clothes, etc. with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignity and disrespect unto them.”
Under the circumstances, there was little incentive to produce food. Severe whippings were tried to induce greater production, but they did little more than increase discontent.
The social disharmony, along with the food shortages, disappeared once the concept of private property was introduced and people could keep whatever they produced, or trade it away as they saw fit. In 1647 Bradford was able to write “any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.” Such was the success of the new system that in 1624 the colonists began to export corn, trading it for beaver pelts, other furs, and meat.
In 1624 the Pilgrims took a further step in property rights. The system of assigning land “to every man for his own particular” had certainly increased the production of corn, but the assignment was drawn by lot yearly. Thus there was not much incentive for making improvements to one's tillage when someone else might draw that land next year. The men requested of the Governor “to have some portion of the land given them for continuance, and not by yearly lot....Which being well considered, their request was granted.”
Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America, established in Virginia in 1607, had an experience similar to the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Early years of starvation were followed by converting to a system of property rights and a free market, which brought abundance. Under collectivism, less than half of every shipload of settlers survived the first twelve months at Jamestown. Most of the work was done by only one-fifth of the men, to whom the socialist system gave the same rations as to the others. During the winter 1609-10, called “The Starving Time,” the population fell from 500 to 60.
But when Jamestown converted to a free market, there was “plenty of food, which every man by his own industry may easily and doth procure,” wrote the colony secretary Ralph Hamor in 1614. Under the previous system, he said, “we reaped not so much corn from the labors of thirty men as three men have done for themselves now.”
We should not underestimate the significance of the experiences at Plymouth and Jamestown. Property rights and free markets were truly revolutionary and fundamental to capitalism. Without them, all the wealth, progress and human betterment that followed could not have occurred. According to Sartell Prentice, “In England, meanwhile, farming 'in common' continued to be the general practice for another hundred years. Not until the second decade of the seventeen hundreds did 'setting crops for their particular' begin to be slowly accepted in England—and decades were to pass before the new practice became sufficiently widespread to provide an adequate food supply for the population.”
Even today, centuries later, there is still inadequate understanding of the importance of property rights and free markets. A recent BBC poll of 29,000 people worldwide found only 11 percent think free-market capitalism is a good thing. One-quarter of those polled said capitalism is “fatally flawed.”
There is no shortage of people who want a political system that gives them the fruits of other men's labors, as at Plymouth and Jamestown. And there is an abundance of politicians willing to accommodate them at the expense of other men's property. The result is repetition of the collectivist systems (socialism, fascism) that have failed in the past, and no end to the discontent and resentment they engender. But people can be seduced to try them again and again by lofty idealistic statements, eloquent messages of hope, and promises that can never be kept. All of which allow the covetousness of other people's property—whether for personal gain or altruistic, collectivist aims—to masquerade under noble-sounding phrases.
When Barrack Obama was campaigning for the presidency, he promised to redistribute other people's wealth for the collective good. In a short but spirited dialog with a small businessman, “Joe the plumber,” Obama argued that society would be better off if Joe's taxes were increased and the money distributed more widely to those less well off. What is this but a denial of Joe's property right to his own money and a repetition of the socialist distribution schemes that were so disastrous at Plymouth and Jamestown?
Once he was president, Obama came up with a health plan that would require everyone to buy health insurance—as though people's money was not theirs by right but, rather, was part of the “common stock” of community property, to be allocated by the leader for the collective good! And, just as at Plymouth, people who did not cooperate would be punished—not by severe whippings as was done there, but by the more civilized penalty of seizing their property (money) through fines if they refused to buy health insurance.
Contrast the government inflicting pain and penalty to force compliance compared to the benefit and satisfaction—even happiness—from market transactions, which people undertake without force or penalty in order to enhance their lives and are far more effective than socialistic distributions. Obama said, "We are fundamentally transforming the United States of America." He is indeed, wiping out the fundamental principles that allowed America to prosper.
Obama claimed, "This is our moment, this is our time to turn the page on the policies of the past, to offer a new direction." Yes, he is “turning the page on the policies” of property rights and free markets. But the direction he is offering is not new but old. It is the ancient system of four centuries ago, before property rights, those basic rights which are still denied in varying degrees in many countries that have never discovered free-market capitalism, much less embraced it—and whose standard of living reflects that fact. And those countries comprise a large share of the 89 percent of the world's people who do not think capitalism is a good thing—but who look with envy on America's success and demand we redistribute a share of our wealth to them.
"Generations from now,” Obama said, “we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was our time." Yes, and they will be the worse for it—and damn you for it!
(The above appeared on this blog on Thanksgiving in 2012 and 2010. It seems more appropriate than ever now.)