Communal living — the utopian dream that never dies

Did you know that when the Puritans first arrived in America, they set up a commune?  I didn’t, but that’s what John Stossel says happened:

When the Pilgrims first settled the Plymouth Colony, they organized their farm economy along communal lines. The goal was to share everything equally, work and produce.

As with all exercises in Communism, it didn’t work:

Why? When people can get the same return with a small amount of effort as with a large amount, most people will make little effort. Plymouth settlers faked illness rather than working the common property. Some even stole, despite their Puritan convictions. Total production was too meager to support the population, and famine resulted. Some ate rats, dogs, horses and cats. This went on for two years.

Only when the Pilgrims made a conscious effort to abandon their socialist enterprise and put a little self-interest into the mix did they have the kind of harvest for which they could give thanks:

“So as it well appeared that famine must still ensue the next year also, if not some way prevented,” wrote Gov. William Bradford in his diary. The colonists, he said, “began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length after much debate of things, [I] (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. … And so assigned to every family a parcel of land.”

The people of Plymouth moved from socialism to private farming. The results were dramatic.

“This had very good success,” Bradford wrote, “for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. … By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine, now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many. … “

Stossel’s conclusion is one worth remembering as the Democratic candidates make their constantly recurring promises to take our money and spend it “wisely” on our behalf:

When action is divorced from consequences, no one is happy with the ultimate outcome. If individuals can take from a common pot regardless of how much they put in it, each person has an incentive to be a free rider, to do as little as possible and take as much as possible because what one fails to take will be taken by someone else. Soon, the pot is empty and will not be refilled — a bad situation even for the earlier takers.

What private property does — as the Pilgrims discovered — is connect effort to reward, creating an incentive for people to produce far more. Then, if there’s a free market, people will trade their surpluses to others for the things they lack. Mutual exchange for mutual benefit makes the community richer.

Secure property rights are the key. When producers know that their future products are safe from confiscation, they will take risks and invest. But when they fear they will be deprived of the fruits of their labor, they will do as little as possible.

That’s the lost lesson of Thanksgiving.

To which I say, Amen!

3 Responses

  1. Almost half of the Pilgrims died the first year.

    There are so many directions I could go with this…

    “…the Democratic candidates make their constantly recurring promises to take our money and spend it “wisely” on our behalf”
    Tonight I caught a radio show which interviewed the director of environmental responsibility for the Aspen Ski Company.
    (http://www.onpointradio.org/shows/2007/11/20071121_b_main.asp)
    The company is committed to reducing its environmental impact but doesn’t have enough captial to do so, after operating costs. Their environmental director believes the government should help and presented a very articulate supporting argument.

    What he really meant is that my tax money should subsidize the Aspen Ski Company’s effort to make their facilties carbon neutral, including the 5 star hotels, ski slopes, swimming pools, and the golf course.

    I am a Colorado native, but I’ve never been able to afford to vacation in Aspen, and I don’t ski or play golf. Nevertheless they expect my tax money to subsidize their green upgrades, and I have no doubts the Democrats will give it to them. I can suggest a lower cost alternative that will reduce their carbon footrpint to zero, but I don’t think the owners will go for it, regardless of their commitment to the environment.

  2. Rush Limbaugh reads a piece his father wrote on the evolution of the Pilgrims’ social-economic perspective every Thanksgiving. He emphasizes the part left out by most educational institutions (read public schools). That part is of course the one dealing with the revelation that capitalism succeeds and communism fails, that most people become wealthy when most property is private and secure, and most people become poor when all property is communal.
    One of the interesting factors is that the Pilgrims created their communal arrangement based on their interpretation of biblical writings. When they realized that their system was contributing to the failure of their community, they changed the system. That change was a smashing success. I wonder if there was any discussion of the change going “against God’s law”? Or was the discussion one of “Our interpretation was wrong.”? Or did that discussion occur at all? I can read sections of the scriptures which clearly (to my right wing, money grubbing, capitalist pig outlook) encourage private reward for private effort, and support the concept of private property.
    Another factor, and a mystifying and irritating one, is how can any intelligent student of history support the communal idea, and agree with policies which lead to communism? Every social experiment, both small and large, attempting to hue to the tenants of the communal ideal has failed. And failed with deadly effect to many of its participants. Communist China is not in fact Communist. It’s more state capitalism than anything else.
    Which is why those who maintain that tax receipts belong to the government are not to be trusted.
    I wish all a stuffed Turkey Day and a joyous Thanksgiving.
    Al

  3. Great post, Book,

    And we can be thankful to God that Bradford had the brilliance to see that their brand of Socialism would never succeed long term.

    And the greater miracle is that he was able to convince the other Puritans of that fact.

    So often, those at the trough of such a social experiment never want to leave the “from your hand to my mouth” mentality.

    God bless our wonderful country and y;all have a great “land of the FREE” thanksgiving!

    ExP(Jack)

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