This is the theoretical Marxist utopia — minus indoor plumbing, NPR, MSNBC and portable electronic devices powered by Solyndra solar panels, naturally. But did this early communist experiment work? Did it succeed at putting food on the table?
Not according to William Bradford, an early Pilgrim governor of the colony best known today as the “Father of Thanksgiving.”
The communal arrangement initially employed by the Pilgrims was “found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort,” Bradford wrote in his journal, which was later compiled into Of Plymouth Plantation.
Why did this arrangement fail? Because as has been the case from time immemorial, the equitable division of inequitably produced assets did not sit well with those whose labors yielded the harvest.
“For the young men, that were most able and fit for labor and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense,” Bradford wrote.
But enmity amongst settlers wasn’t the real problem encountered at Plymouth — it was a shortage of food. In his book Mayflower: A Story of Courage Community and War historian Nathaniel Philbrick discusses how communal farming and common ownership produced a “disastrous harvest.”
Faced with the prospect of starvation, Bradford “decided that each household should be assigned its own plot to cultivate, with the understanding that each family kept whatever it grew,” according to Philbrick. Not surprisingly this approach replaced infighting and starvation with harmony and industry — not to mention an abundance of food.
“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,” Bradford wrote.
In other words where top-down planning based on communist ideology failed — the enforcement of private property rights based on free market ideology succeeded.
“The change in attitude was stunning,” Philbrick writes. “Families were now willing to work much harder than they had ever worked before.”
“The Pilgrims had stumbled on the power of capitalism,” Philbrick added, noting that “although the fortunes of the colony still teetered precariously in the years ahead, the inhabitants never again starved.”
As the United States moves further away from its free market foundation this Thanksgiving, the example of Plymouth is worth considering. It is a cautionary tale — a grim reminder of where the federal government’s present trajectory is going to take our nation.
Already the “fair share” policies of Barack Obama — who is making good on his stated desire to “spread the wealth” around — have failed to produce the promised economic recovery. In fact America’s central bank is now printing money indefinitely as government’s debt and unfunded liabilities race past the threshold of sustainability.
The result of this “stimulus?” Income levels are shrinking, joblessness remains chronically high and economic growth is anemic. And lurking around the corner are massive tax hikes and the full implementation of Obama’s socialized medicine law — both of which will result in additional large-scale shifts from the “makers” to the “takers” in our society.
Incentivizing dependency has clearly failed to stimulate our economy. From 2000-10, government’s cash assistance to the poor increased by 68 percent — after adjusting for inflation. Health care assistance increased by 87 percent, housing assistance by 108 percent and food assistance by 139 percent — again, all after adjusting for inflation. Still, poverty in America climbed from 11.3 to 15.1 percent during that time period.
Government efforts to combat poverty have produced more poverty, in other words — and based on the ongoing entitlement expansion, the worst is likely yet to come.
As we gather together to celebrate Thanksgiving this year, let’s not only remember the lessons of Plymouth — let’s commit to proclaiming the virtues of self-reliance, property rights and free markets more boldly than ever. Otherwise we’ll have even less to be thankful about next year.
The author is chairman of Americans for Limited Government.