Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A Thanksgiving Lesson

John Stossel at

Every year around this time, schoolchildren are taught about that wonderful day when Pilgrims and Native Americans shared the fruits of the harvest. "Isn't sharing wonderful?" say the teachers.

They miss the point.

Because of sharing, the first Thanksgiving in 1623 almost didn't happen.

The failure of Soviet communism is only the latest demonstration that freedom and property rights, not sharing, are essential to prosperity. The earliest European settlers in America had a dramatic demonstration of that lesson, but few people today know it.

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.

They nearly all starved.

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.

"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. ... "

Because of the change, the first Thanksgiving could be held in November 1623
Near the end of his column Stossel says:
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.
Now what about countries that don’t have free market economies?

Well, Cuba and North Korea are the two I’ve read the most about.

I often give thanks I don’t live in either of them.

Even Princeton professor and NY Times columnist Paul Krugman, for all his advocacy of government solutions, doesn't want to live in either place.

Stossel’s entire column is here.


Anonymous said...


Have a great Thanksgiving.


Stephen said...

John: Best wishes to you and your family from me as well. Hopefully, you will be able to enjoy a well deserved rest. All the best.

Anonymous said...

To my knowledge, the only places where true communism has ever functioned as planned is in monasteries where the participants are there VOLUNTARILY. When you force and subjugate people to socialism/communism, they react like people--some work hard and others skate and expect their neighbors to provide for them. In short, political communism has never worked any place it has been tried PERIOD.

Anonymous said...

The Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving during the year of their arrival, 1621. They did not celebrate in 1623. While Stossel's story is compelling, it seems more fiction than fact. Research the matter for yourself and draw your own conclusions.

Anonymous said...

Stossel's story loses credibility because he didn't know when the first thanksgiving occured.

It's a shame, because the truth that the colonies almost failed because of the communistic approach to farming was the reason for his article.