Sunday, November 20, 2011

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. This simplistic and narrow explanation of why the Pilgrims’ business plan was such a failure ignores or misstates several key elements of the story in an effort to make a point. I am no fan of the Pilgrims or their extreme twist on Christian theology, but Stossel’s retelling is revisionist (“revisionist” used here in the pejorative sense).

    First, the Pilgrims did not “organize their farm economy along communal lines.” On the contrary, their incentive plans and communal structure were imposed by their employers – the investment syndicate funding the venture – which did not allow the settlers to own any property (including their houses). This is an example of how capitalism can be exploitative and just as tyrannical as communism. Secondly, the settlers at Plymouth Rock were not all Pilgrims; many were indentured servants with very different incentives and debt obligations, so it makes no sense to judge the efforts or outcome of the “Pilgrims” as a test of a single philosophy, economy or society (they didn’t all share “Puritan convictions” – whatever that means). Thirdly, the account below makes no mention of the difficult weather, the value of the learning curve and tacit knowledge gained over the first few years, or how Squanto (a Catholic, interestingly enough) was willing to transfer technology for free (what kind of return might the “market” have demanded in this life-or-death situation, and would that return be just?).

    There are many more possible lessons here, but the whole point of Thanksgiving exceeds a lesson in economics. Contrary to Stossel, “The real meaning of Thanksgiving” and the most important lesson is: to be thankful. We ought to be grateful for the many gifts and blessings which we cannot claim as a result of our ingenuity, tenacity or rights: the blessings of family, divine favor, and our very lives.

    That said, I am grateful for the great friendships formed and lessons learned at Owen. May god bless you and your families, and may you all have a blessed Thanksgiving!

  2. I grew up on a family homestead that we farm and I have seen first hand how ownership affects effort, not just in land but also in companies, teams, etc. Good lesson on why property rights and ownership are so important.