A Thanksgiving Lesson

by on November 24, 2004 at 7:28 am in Current Affairs, Economics, History | Permalink

It’s one of the ironies of American history that when the Pilgrims first arrived at Plymouth rock they promptly set about creating a communist society.  Of course, they were soon starving to death.

Fortunately, "after much debate of things," Governor William Bradford ended corn collectivism, decreeing that each family should keep the corn that it produced.  In one of the most insightful statements of political economy ever penned, Bradford described the results of the new and old systems.

[Ending corn collectivism] 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. The women now went willingly into the
field, and took their little ones with them to set corn;
which before would allege weakness and inability; whom
to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny
and oppression.

The experience that was had in this common course and
condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and
sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of
Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later
times; that the taking away of property and bringing in
community into a commonwealth would make them happy
and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this
community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion
and discontent and retard much employment that
would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the
young men, that were most able and fit for labour and
service, did repine that they should spend their time and
strength to work for other men’s wives and children without
any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no
more in division of victuals and clothes than he that was
weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this
was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be
ranked and equalized in labours and victuals, clothes, etc.,
with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignity
and disrespect unto them. And for men’s wives to be
commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their
meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of
slavery, neither could many husbands well brook it. Upon
the point all being to have alike, and all to do alike, they
thought themselves in the like condition, and one as good
as another; and so, if it did not cut off those relations that
God hath set amongst men, yet it did at least much diminish
and take off the mutual respects that should be preserved
amongst them. And would have been worse if they
had been men of another condition. Let none object this
is men’s corruption, and nothing to the course itself. I answer,
seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in
His wisdom saw another course fitter for them.

Among Bradford’s many insights it’s amazing that he saw so clearly how collectivism failed not only as an economic system but that even among godly men "it did at least much diminish and take off the mutual respects that should be preserved amongst them."  And it shocks me to my core when he writes that to make the collectivist system work would have required "great tyranny
and oppression."  Can you imagine how much pain the twentieth century could have avoided if Bradford’s insights been more widely recognized?

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