Thursday, November 27, 2014

What The PIlgrims Can Teach Us Today

Ilya Somin at the Washington Post has such a good piece that I'll repost it here in its entirety:
There is much to be thankful for on Thanksgiving. One lesson of the holiday that we should try not to forget is how the Pilgrims were saved from starvation and misery by private property rights. Economist Benjamin Powell summarizes the story here:
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.
In 1620 Plymouth Plantation was founded with a system of communal property rights. Food and supplies were held in common and then distributed based on equality and need as determined by Plantation officials. People received the same rations whether or not they contributed to producing the food, and residents were forbidden from producing their own food. Governor William Bradford, in his 1647 history, Of Plymouth Plantation, wrote that this system was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. The problem was that “young men, that were most able and fit for labour, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense.” Because of the poor incentives, little food was produced.
Faced with potential starvation in the spring of 1623, the colony decided to implement a new economic system. Every family was assigned a private parcel of land. They could then keep all they grew for themselves….
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.
For a more detailed account of the Pilgrims’ transition to private property, see here. In my 2010 post on this subject, I explained why the lessons of the Pilgrims’ experience with property rights are in no way vitiated by the fact that the Plymouth Plantation was a corporation.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!
The Pilgrims would teach us that socialism doesn't work, if only we're smart enough to listen.


maxutils said...

This is both well documented and correct. the only way the communal approach works is if every single person believes in it … which won't happen, and even if it does will degenerate. What is more interesting to me, though, are industries where it's difficult to assign rights. For example, how do you own the air? Or the value of an educated populous? you don't. That's among the reasons why government is sometimes needed to enforce property rights which can't naturally exist. always inefficient, yet better than the alternative ...

allen (in Michigan) said...

Obviously then socialism has some quality which makes it intrinsically attractive otherwise it would long since have died out.

Darren said...

Socialism is the iron pyrite of political beliefs.

PeggyU said...

Max - A communal system can work well at the family level. Anything beyond that seems to break down easily.

My mom's side of the family is extended but have close ties. My mom and sisters-in-law share a large garden, raise chickens, and team up to take on chores like house painting. This is similar to the arrangement my grandparents and aunts and uncles had. I sometimes wish we lived close enough to join in!

Mike Thiac said...


Your comment makes me recall the wisdom of Margaret Thatcher, "There are no communities, there are individuals and their are families" About right.

maxutils said...

Peggy U- I agree, but I'll go one further. A communal system will work as long as everyone invested in it agrees with the concept. That's easiest in a family,but I have a friend who with his wife joined a communal housing development. They had their own entirely separate but smallish living space, and shared with … maybe 10 other couples … a central area and garden; they took turns a couple of nights making dinner for everyone in the central area and performing chores like tending the grounds. Not only did they love it, but they wound up having a prime location in midtown Sacramento for a fraction of the price that they would have paid on their own. BUT … everyone there bought in to the concept, and you had to interview to get one of the slots, if one opened up. Left to it's own … it would never work on any large scale.