I just realized this was sitting in my unpublished bucket...better late than never...
As we celebrate Thanksgiving here in the US I thought I'd debunk the myth that the shared, communal aspect of Plymouth Colony, as well as the help of the natives, is what pulled the colonists through that first difficult year in the New World. We all seem to learn this in grade school history. It's wrong.
The full text of the Mayflower Compact is long gone, but the journal of William Bradford (the leader of Plymouth Colony) does survive, called Of Plymouth Plantation. I'll be honest, I've never read the whole thing, the Olde English prose is difficult for my feeble brain to comprehend. However, this quote is telling:
3. The persons transported and the adventurers shall continue their joynt stock and partnership togeather, the space of 7. years, (excepte some unexpected impedimente doe cause the whole company to agree otherwise,) during which time, all profits and benifits that are gott by trade, traffick, trucking, working, fishing, or any other means of any person or persons, remaine still in the commone stock untill the division.
5. That at the end of the 7. years, the capitall and profits, viz. the houses, lands, goods and chatles, be equally devided betwixte the adventurers, and planters; which done, every man shall be free from other of them of any debt or detrimente concerning this adventure.
This is spelled out further, but the gist is the settlers had no private property and no free trade. Labor was to be organized by the different capacities of the individuals. If that doesn't sound like Karl Marx in 1875's Critique of the Gotha Program I don't know what does ("From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."). The Plymouth Colony is what many interventionists and liberals point to in an effort to show that "fair" distribution of property works.
It doesn't. Here's the real history...
So that first year the settlers shared their labor and shared their harvest. And they almost starved. That's why the natives helped them out. The natives showed them their native crops and farming techniques. The settlers shared nothing (maybe disease) with the natives because they had nothing. This is the Tragedy of the Commons, so named because when property goes unowned or private property rights are ignored there is no incentive for hard work, thrift, and asset creation. Value and price discovery cannot occur. Instead, the goal is to take what you can, when you can, from the communal pool of assets, before someone else beats you to it. So when the crops are ready for harvest why bother saving some of it for next year's seed stock? That's someone else's problem. Let's eat everything instead (this is what happens with our oceans, BTW). Why even work the harvest at all? Just fake an illness. You'll still get fed according to the Mayflower Compact.
For two years the settlers were near starvation. Bradford and the elder settlers came up with a better solution:
On the other hand the old planters were affraid that their corne, when it was ripe, should be imparted to the newcommers, whose provissions which they brought with them they feared would fall short before the year wente aboute (as indeed it did). They came to the Govr and besought him that as it was before agreed that they should set corne for their perticuler, and accordingly they had taken extraordinary pains ther aboute, that they might freely injoye the same, and they would not have a bitte of the victails now come, but watee till harvest for their owne, and let the new-commers injoye what they had brought; they would have none of it, excepte they could purchase any of it of them by bargaine or exchainge. Their requeste was granted them, for it gave both sides good contente; for the new-commers were as much afraid that the hungrie planters would have eat up the provissions brought, and they should have fallen into the like condition.
Bingo. The settlers abandoned communal, interventionist, redistributionist ideas and went back to good 'ol private property. Everyone, the original settlers and the new arrivals too, agreed that this was the proper way to ensure long term success.
[...] By this time harvest was come, and in stead of famine, now God gave them plentie, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoysing of the harts of many, for which they blessed God. And the effect of their particuler planting was well scene, for all had, one way and other, pretty well to bring the year aboute, and some of the abler sorte and more industrious had to spare, and sell to others, so as any generall wante or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.
Wow, that's the perfect testimonial to capitalism, private property, and libertarianism. BTW, why did Bradford and the senior settlers have this change of heart? They watched the Wampanoag who, contrary to what you may have read about Native Americans in general, had very definite ideas of private property rights (inherited property was passed matrilineally, regardless of marriage status) and limited government (they were a confederation). They were *not* communal farmers. So, when we celebrate Thanksgiving, what are we really celebrating? It's different for every person, but for me I am thankful for free markets, capitalism, and private property rights. That would seem to be the real lesson.