Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The real meaning of Thanksgiving

John Stossel gives us another lesson that you won't learn in high school:

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. ... "

Peter Klein has some commentary, as does the revisionist NY Times:


  1. Man's nature is evil, as maintained by Xun Zi 2,000 years ago. Happy Thanksgiving! Jacky

  2. Too bad that many academics and especially euro-centric economists seek to apply this isolated example of human failure as some fundamental truth as if these pitiful pilgrims represent everyone. What Columbus and the early pilgrims stumbled upon - and did NOT discover by the way - was an unknown continent that was in fact more populous than Europe, with bigger cities, more advanced medicine, superior agriculture, and healthier people - none of which they realized. Yet, communal farming was at the very core of the pre-colonial American economy. What is more interesting is that this isn't the type of lesson taught in high school or in a leading University economics curriculum either, apparently.

  3. In spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose ... be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society.

  4. I am curious if this represents Nash's Equilibrium in some fashion (work versus shirk debate in particular). If they were not able to move to privatization, what would have been the equilibrium? This would be a great example to go over in class if it were possible to quantify it.