As we celebrate Thanksgiving each year and express gratitude for family and the things we appreciate, very little is mentioned about the key roles private property rights and the free market played in its origin. Among the incoherent demands of many in the recent OWS movements have been the notions of wealth re-distribution to the ‘entitled’ through the confiscation of property, and calls for the end of capitalism. It is not a surprise that these calls are coming from the self described anarchists, socialists, and communist groups which are apart of the movement.
Ironically the means and freedoms which allow these groups to advocate their positions have been made possible by the free market system which they seek to destroy. Moreover, how many of these people have actually lived under socialism, fascism, and communism and how many more of their family before them fled these systems to seek liberty and economic prosperity in America?
We are familiar with the first main celebration of Thanksgiving by the Pilgrims in the fall of 1621. But what were the significant elements which contributed to the pilgrims being able survive and to celebrate Thanksgiving thereafter? These elements are property rights, free market ideas and early forms of capitalism which fostered individual upward mobility and economic prosperity.
Rarely is there anything written about these key elements which allowed the early settlers to celebrate a prosperous Thanksgiving. Among the few articles which explain this has been one by Caroline Baum who wrote on the topic in Bloomberg, ‘ Thanksgiving Story Resonates in Post Crisis Age’, and a Heritage Foundation’s Morning Bell article, ‘ Giving Thanks for the Free Markets’, Interesting facts about Thanksgiving are often missing in the discussion about this holiday and seldom taught in schools. However these facts are woven in the birth of the ‘American Idea’.
William Bradford was governor of Plymouth Bay Colony for 30 years between 1621 and 1656. He wrote ‘History of Plymouth Plantation” which was first published in 1856. After the pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1620, they established the Plymouth Bay Colony named after their point of departure in England. They endured harsh winters in the first few years due to insufficient crop yields and lack of productivity in the preceding planting seasons. As a result, many died from starvation and some resorted to stealing from others to survive.
Contributing to this was that when the colony was founded all the property was taken away from families and transferred to the “comone wealth”. This was due to a practice brought over by the Pilgrims called “farming in common”, where everything produced was put in a common pool and was re-distributed through harvest rationing.
Governor Bradford observed that when the pilgrims did away with private property it discouraged the young and able to work for others “without any recompence”, or to be productive. Some who were unable and did not produce their own food actually became servants to the Indians. In addition, many who claimed to be too old, ill or unwilling made little effort to contribute in the planting season. They felt ‘entitled’ to the production made by others since it was part of the ‘comone wealth’. This led to the transition of more ‘takers’ than ‘makers’. Soon the output of too few ‘makers’ was not enough to sustain the whole colony thus increasing the chances for starvation, chaos and no harvest to survive the winter.
At the beginning of the spring planting season of 1623 Governor Bradford tried an experiment. He re-allocated land to each family who had theirs previously taken away and re-established private property rights to encourage creativity and increased productivity. This experiment worked very well in aiding the Pilgrims to have enough food for the winter and improve self sufficiency of the colony. This was because members became industrious as they were motivated to enjoy the fruits of their labor from their own property. They were free to innovate in areas of their specialty or preference and also trade the surplus they created for other commodities they wished to consume. In addtition competition further increased productivity on a whole for the colony. Even those who previously did not take part in planting and harvesting because they claimed they were too unwilling, old or ill, became involved in producing so they could enjoy the results of property ownership.
Given the incentives attributed to private property rights, the Pilgrims experienced a successful harvest in the fall of 1623 and set aside “a day of thanksgiving”, and to thank God for their good fortune. So successful was Governor Bradford’s experiment that he noted in an entry done in 1647, the last year covered by his history, “Any general wante or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day”.
This basic principle of private ownership was a key ingredient to our founding and to the freedom and prosperity we have enjoyed for hundreds of years. It has allowed many with ambition to enjoy the path of upward mobility and invigorated the ‘American Dream’.
An essential lesson from this part of Thanksgiving history is that a free individual with property rights can make better decisions of his or her property to ensure prosperity than when it is controlled by a few under the premise that this few in government can ensure the ‘common’ good for all.
This topic of conversation would re-emerge during the founding of America when the founders debated the Articles of Federation over 180 years after the first Thanksgiving. A general conclusion was that man is ‘not infallible’ and therefore NOT perfect or absolutely trustworthy and exempt from liability to error. Thus, absolute power in the hands of a few to control property and freedom of many without the consent of the people being governed would lead to the consequences of the fallible nature of this few.
Today almost 400 years after the first Thanksgiving members of the OWS think that economic prosperity will succeed if the ‘fallible’ few in a powerful overreaching government can be trusted to decide the redistribution of property for the ‘common’ or collective good of everyone. In essence they will barter away individual freedom and resources for a presumed fallacy of a government provided safety net. This is a fallacy because politicians due to their fallible nature will more likely to redistribute resources for short term political motives than for the economic growth of the individual they govern. The economic future of the country would be bartered away due to the transition from a limited government to a limited people with less liberty.
The 2008 financial crisis stemmed from big government policies for over 20 years which overreached and ignored the free market system. It steered the redirection of resources with the political intent of ‘enabling’ more home ownership of many, but bred the irresponsible and incompetent decisions which still haunts the whole economy.
The key lessons to OWS from the real story about the origins of Thanksgiving not only show that the ideas of economic freedom and free markets worked almost 400 years ago to ensure prosperity, but anything or any movement which seek to undo those ideals since that period have failed with great consequences.
The ideas and principles from the early years which ensured celebrating Thanksgiving through the birth of the founding of America are forever relevant to her existence. This is because the fallible nature of people to destroy those elements are always present. More so, the fallible nature of this group is more potent because it is ignorant of living in a time when the liberty we enjoy today was non-existent and never had to fight for it because others did and more still do to protect liberty.
We are fortunate to have the individual liberties we enjoy and our armed forces who still fight to protect them. For all these, we must be thankful and never forget.