The story of the first main celebration of Thanksgiving by the Pilgrims in the fall of 1621 is all too familiar. However, what were the messages and 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.
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, the young and able were discouraged from working for others “without any recompense,” 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 believed they were 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 creating the opportunity to allow 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. 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 immigrants as 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 in government. However, many still believe in the premise that these ‘few’ in government can ensure the ‘common’ good for all.
This topic of conversation also re-emerged during the founding of America. Founders debated the virtues of limited government in The Federalist Papers over 160 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 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 in control.
Today almost 400 years after the first Thanksgiving, collectivist members of the political class advocate that in order to reduce income inequality and guarantee economic prosperity for the underprivileged, the ‘fallible’ few elites in a powerful overreaching government must be entrusted the political power to decide the redistribution of property for the ‘common’ or collective good of everyone. In essence, they seek to barter away individual freedom and resources for a presumed security of a government provided safety net.
This is an economic 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, the ideas of 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 like Venezuela now are warnings of what could happen here if we follow that path.
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. In the last 25 years extreme poverty in the world has been cut in half as more people are exposed to the free markets. According to the World Bank, over 100,000 people each day are lifted out of poverty.
The chants of inequality favors more income redistribution and ignore the proven principles of encouraging more economic freedom to enhance upward income mobility. Also, the other hot button topic of minimum wage would not be such an issue if we had growth policies that provided opportunities for higher paying jobs. The best examples to see this is the comparison between states that practice pro growth policies such as low taxes, and sensible regulations versus those that are high taxed, and over regulated. The U.S has had one of it’s lowest growth period in recent years at about 2% average. We also have had the lowest labor participation rate of about 63% since the late 1970s. While these are reasons for the ‘inequality’ anxiety, Americans need leaders to reacquaint them with pro growth and economic freedom policies rather than to espouse the illusive virtues of socialism.
The key lessons 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. 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.