Abundance from Freedom

Assigned Reading: The Pilgrims’ Real Thanksgiving Lesson
(FROM: The Independent Institute)

Benjamin Powell of the Independent Institute takes on one of the myths of Thanksgiving:

Many people believe that after suffering through a severe winter, the Pilgrims’ food shortages were resolved the following spring when the Native Americans taught them to plant corn and a Thanksgiving celebration resulted. In fact, the pilgrims continued to face chronic food shortages for three years until the harvest of 1623. Bad weather or lack of farming knowledge did not cause the pilgrims’ shortages. Bad economic incentives did.

The problem was that the original economic system of the pilgrims was a form of communism. Everything that was grown went into a communal store and the leaders doled out form the store to everyone. But the old Marxist ideal of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” turned out to be a disaster.

Finally the Pilgrims decided to scrap their system and try again. They gave each family their own land and told them that they could keep whatever they grew and that no one could depend on a handouts from the leaders anymore. The Pilgrims’ governor, William Bradford, recorded in 1647 that this change saved the pilgrims.

This change, Bradford wrote, had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. Giving people economic incentives changed their behavior…

Once the Pilgrims in the Plymouth Plantation abandoned their communal economic system and adopted one with greater individual property rights, they never again faced the starvation and food shortages of the first three years. It was only after allowing greater property rights that they could feast without worrying that famine was just around the corner.

Not quite the lesson you learned in grade school about the Pilgrims being rescued by generous Native Americans, is it?


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