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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 for centuries to come. It’s important that we as conservatives remind our family and friends about how these principles were relevant then and now.
Rarely is there anything written about these key elements which allowed the early settlers to celebrate a prosperous Thanksgiving. 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 about 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.
Significantly contributing to this, 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 from working for others “without any recompence”, or without compensation 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 and subsequently led to an increase in 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. He also re-established private property rights to encourage creativity and increased productivity. This experiment worked very well in allowing the opportunity for the Pilgrims to have enough food for the winter and improve the 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. They were also able to trade the surplus they created for other commodities they wished to consume. In addition, 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 having 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 idea behind the ‘American Dream’. The prospect of earned success empowered the ambitious and attracted immigrant new comers for years to come who shared the same aspirations.
An essential lesson from this part of Thanksgiving history is that , free individuals with property rights can make better decisions of his or her property to ensure prosperity than when it is controlled by an exceedingly powerful few. However, many believe in the premise that these ‘few’ in government can ensure the ‘common’ good for all.
This topic of conversation would re-emerge during the founding of America. Founders debated the virtues of limited Government in The Federalist Papers 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, unlimited power in the hands of a few in government to control the property and the freedom of many others without their consent, would lead to negative consequences due to the fallible ( or imperfect) nature of this few.
Today almost 400 years after the first Thanksgiving, collectivist members of the political class 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 security of a government provided safety net.
This is a fallacy because politicians due to their fallible nature are more likely to redistribute resources for short-term political motives that grows their power, rather than for the economic growth of the individuals they govern. The economic future of the country is at the risk of being bartered away due to the transition from a limited government to a limited people with less liberty.
As the Pilgrims learned centuries ago, a limited people deprived of the liberty of opportunity and deprived of the ability to succeed on his or her own merits, is corrosive to the well being of a society. It is easy for a culture of entitlement to manifest into chaos and economic stagnation when the State runs out of resources to redistribute. Eventually there are not enough people to tax to pay for this redistribution. The unrests in welfare States like Greece and other places in Europe is a warning of what could happen here when this reality unfolds.
The road to socialism is paved by the emotion of populism that promises equal outcomes through collectivism, often propagated by charismatic leaders who predict that this will ensure prosperity and abundance, but actually accomplishes neither.
Conversely, as more traditionally socialist and communist countries have drifted from those ideals and embraced elements of economic freedom and individual property rights, the more their people have prospered and these countries have become more developed. Economic freedom and individual property rights have lifted far more people out of poverty than any foreign aid would ever have. Emerging economies in Eastern Europe, Africa, South America and East Asia can attest to this.
The 2008 financial crisis stemmed from big government policies for over 20 years that 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 haunt the whole economy. Today, negative uncertainties of future fiscal and regulatory policies restrain the free movement of capital to where they are more productive for growth. As such, there is less economic freedom as some think the government can allocate resources derived via taxes more efficiently through a regulative apparatus.
More recently, Obamacare was promised to bring about affordable healthcare through a radical make over of the entire healthcare system with more control given to government bureaucrats to redistribute and control health care resources. Instead of targeting the root factors that cause higher insurance such as fraud, abuse and the lack sufficient methods needed to promote competition or wiser individual investment in health care, the result has actually been less access and less affordable insurance for those who already had it. Ironically, the cost of insurance for many who did not have it has actually gotten higher, and access may be diminished as less people are attracted to practice medicine. Just as the early settlers learn’t centuries ago, beware of property being transferred to the ‘comone wealth’ under the guise that it will collectively help everyone equally.
The key lessons about the origins of Thanksgiving do not only show that the ideas of economic freedom and free markets worked almost 400 years ago to ensure prosperity. They also show that since that period whenever steps are taken to reject or undo those ideals, they have failed with great consequences.
The ideas and principles from the early years, which ensured celebrating Thanksgiving, through to 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 is 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. This group never had to fight for it because others did, and still do to protect liberty.
We are fortunate to have the prosperity and liberties we enjoy and for the individuals that still fight to protect them. For all these, we must be thankful and never forget. Happy Thanksgiving. If would like, please follow me on twitter @karlmiller1776