Grateful for Not Starving: Why The Pilgrims at Plymouth Switched From Socialism to Capitalism

by | Nov 20, 2018

The Pilgrims nearly starved to death. They'd tried to farm collectively -- the entire community owning all the land and sharing everything, like socialists.

When we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, I will give thanks for property rights. Property rights allow each individual or family to do what we want with our small piece of the world without having to answer to the whole community.

On Thanksgiving, we’ll probably be told to think of America as one big family — and for some people, government is the head of that family. That idea warms the hearts of America’s new “democratic socialists.” But thinking like that nearly destroyed this nation before it began.

The Pilgrims at Plymouth didn’t share a feast with Indians after arriving in 1620 because America was so filled with bounty. Instead, the Pilgrims nearly starved to death. They’d tried to farm collectively — the entire community owning all the land and sharing everything, like socialists. Gov. William Bradford wrote, “By the spring, our food stores were used up and people grew weak and thin. Some swelled with hunger.”

The Pilgrims at Plymouth didn’t share a feast with Indians after arriving in 1620 because America was so filled with bounty. Instead, the Pilgrims nearly starved to death. They’d tried to farm collectively — the entire community owning all the land and sharing everything, like socialists.

Then, writes Bradford, “After much debate (I) assigned each family a parcel of land… (T)his had very good success, because it made every hand industrious.” Crop production increased because workers reaped direct benefits of their own effort. They stopped hoping someone else would do the hard work.

It’s not that the Pilgrims were lazy or weak. They’d risked their lives to cross an ocean to try to build a community from scratch. But in tiny, often imperceptible ways, we each do a less efficient job, and pay less attention to the task at hand, if we think the whole community is responsible for that task. The Pilgrims were the same people after their switch from collective to individual farming — from socialism to capitalism, as it were — but after the switch, they thrived. That led to the first Thanksgiving in 1623.

The bounty for which we give thanks this week was made possible by that early course correction to private property.

I worry that, 400 years later, we’ve turned into ingrates. Instead of celebrating individual producers, Americans give thanks to a gigantic government for handouts. It’s not just the poor who get a helping hand. Middle- and even upper-class Americans have been taught to expect government to guarantee health insurance programs, dispense our retirement income, run our schools and provide security. We do things as a single, unanimous unit that could be done better by private individuals and the voluntary groups we form. Why?

I think the idea of everyone pulling together under the warm umbrella of wise political leaders, as if all 330 million Americans sat around the same dinner table, makes people feel cozy and safe.

But it’s a dangerous illusion.

It’s hard enough to get a real family to agree on things for the holidays. Children fight. Tastes differ. Not everyone wants to hear the same music.

On a small scale like that, we know each other well enough to forgive slights such as an uncle knocking over the gravy boat or the kids playing loud music.

But trying to do that with 330 million strangers is a formula for disaster.

The result of pretending we’re one big household that can manage everything collectively is more than $20 trillion of debt and a million complicated laws. Then we fight about who should be in charge of it all.

Collective farming nearly starved the Pilgrims. It also starved tens of millions in the Soviet Union and in Communist China. And it’s not just a farming problem.

Doing anything collectively, especially if you do it involuntarily, is a bad, inefficient idea.

Government can force everyone into the same centrally-dictated plan, but in doing so it stifles individual initiative and drive. Economists call it the “tragedy of the commons,” and it happens whether the individual’s goal is to make food, build houses or invent a better running shoe.

This holiday, I’ll be thankful that the Pilgrims were smart enough to stop doing things the hard way. Modern America should learn from that.

John Stossel is author of No They Can't! Why Government Fails — But Individuals Succeed. For other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

1 Comment

  1. Here is the full account by Governor William Bradford from “Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647” quoted above:

    “All this while no supply was heard of, neither knew they when they might expect any. So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they cold, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still 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; in all other things to go on in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number, for that end, only for present use (but made no division for inheritance) and ranged all boys and youth under some family. This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have thought great tyranny and oppression.”

    “The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later times; that the taking away or property and bringing into community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men, that were most able and fit for labour and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more division of victuals and clothes 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 labors and victuals, clothes, etc. with the meaner and younger sort, thought it was some indignity and disrespect unto them. And for mens’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands well brook it.”

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Help Capitalism Magazine get the pro-capitalist message out.

With over 9,000 articles online Capitalism Magazine is completely free. We rely on the generosity of our readers to keep us going. So if you already donate to us, thank you! And if you don’t, please consider making a donation today. One-off donations – or better yet, monthly donations – are hugely appreciated. You can find out more here. Thank you!

Pin It on Pinterest