Thanksgiving Lessons

Here from 2004 is my post on the lessons of thanksgiving.

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?

Addendum: Scott Sumner comments.


Imagine the pain had their system worked...we'd likely still be living their harsh agrarian lifestyle.

Their system has worked with a vengeance. All the members of that Pilgrim colony were employees and indentured servants of a corporation, and they were required by contract to serve their employer and first repay the debt that funded the expedition, and then to provide profit and bonuses to the investors. The welfare of the employees, those colonists, was secondary to the corporate debt service and profit generation.

Today, the corporations who had the charter to pillage and plunder America for profit four centuries ago are now located in Wall Street, address Delaware, or Bahama, and corporate profit is far more important than the employees and indentured servants. And the royalty and rich merchants that bought their charters from the King then, buy their charters from the legislatures here. Instead of the royalty and rich merchantman living in England and profiting from America, the royalty and rich merchantman are jetting between their homes in NYC and California and Florida and London and Beijing, far wealthier that those capitalists who bought, paid, owned the Pilgrim corporation with its employees and indentured servants in terms of the share of wealth they controlled.

And when the Pilgrim's corporate plan failed and it was on the verge of total bankruptcy and liquidation, they were bailed out by the American people. Who the Pilgrims repaid in the future by taking everything they had and virtually wiping them out. History repeats with the corporations facing bankruptcy and liquidation, they negotiated a bailout by the American people, and are now doing everything they can to wipe out whatever wealth of the American people remains in repayment.

Further, then as now, the corporate venture had the backing of a conservative religious group that justified their corporate mission on maintaining and restoring conservative moral values. Then they protested the corrupt values of London, now they protest the corrupt values of DC.

And finally, the contracting was done with secret backroom dealing the corporate owners concealed from employees, per wikipedia: "A second change was known only to parties in England who chose not to inform the larger group. New investors who had been brought into the venture wanted the terms altered so that at the end of the seven year contract, half of the settled land and property would revert to them; and that the provision for each settler to have two days per week to work on personal business was dropped." VP Cheney operated in secret in full honor of that tradition.

It seems Reagan marked the beginning of returning to the founding corporate ownership of one and all in time for the 400th anniversary of that original Plymouth corporation.

I thought the original post was about incentives...

The background is interesting, but your modern invective and comparison is so strained I wonder how much of it can be trusted.

When the only tool you have is a hammer...

Wow. Never miss an opportunity to kick a failed ideology while it's down.

And I thought it was the collectivist natives that bailed them out with free food.

I agree with Ian. I thought we give thanks today, in part, for the help that the Pilgrims received in their hour of great desperation. (Or maybe that is just the liberal version of the holiday...history is a tricky thing.) Odd how the quote you chose does not mention the source of corn seed. Typical error of glossing over the initial any case, Happy Turkey Day!

I'm surprised at all the cynical responses to this message, which is far more about how incentive drives behavior than anything else. Collectivism removes incentives for hard work, and behavior follows. It might be relevant to discuss how how Indians were able to make collectivism work - perhaps through social pressures and status rather than physical reward.

But if you want to talk about how Indians treated us, and how we treated Indians, that's something else entirely.

"It might be relevant to discuss how how Indians were able to make collectivism work – perhaps through social pressures and status rather than physical reward."

When I read this, it occurred to me how little overlap there seems to be between people who think that using social pressure and status to induce production under a communist system would be better than using financial incentives under capitalism, and those who think that it's a good idea to use social pressure to induce production under the welfare-state status quo. Which is to say, most leftists hate the fact that there's a stigma associated with being on the dole.

What's the basis for describing the natives as collectivist?

Haven't you seen 'Dances with Wolves?'

Facsinating. I never knew you could plant corn in November.

Uh oh, Tyler, threatening your polymath status, and particularly embarrassing given how long you have lived in Virginia.

Let us be clear. The first Thanksgiving was in 1619, held at the Berkeley Planation on the James River in, yes, Virginia. Oysers, baby, oysers, still a local fave on the holiday. Those pilgrims were just textbook-space-hoggin johnny-come-latelies.

Tyler? And huh?


A "professor" who can't read or write. Whoda thunk it!

OK, Alex then. Don't know about the "huh" though.

The first Thanksgiving in what would become the United States was in Florida in 1565:

Just saying'...

I love it when Americans fight over their history. Guys, calm down, you'll damage what little you have. >wink<

Happy Turkey day to our transatlantic cousins...

Bradford had no qualms living his cushy governor lifestyle made possible by the collective labor of others. He also forgets that they had to combine their resources to make the trip, or how they survived the disease of the first winter by collectively pooling their healthcare resources ...and there seems to be no mention of the communist Indians who bailed them out.

Save your propaganda, the red scare ended like 40 years ago.

Survived the first winter? About 50% died. If that's being "bailed out" it must mean that the "communist Indian'" version of Medicaid wasn't working so good.

It was the corporate masters in London who were bailed out by the Americans feeding the English indentured servants - if all those employees died in Plymouth, the investors in London would have lost everything they invested, instead they reaped huge profits, far higher than projected in the prospectus within seven years, and that was true even after a labor union forced renegotiation of their employment contracts.

Let's remember who the important figures are in the Plymouth colony corporation: Thomas Weston of London and his hedge fund, Plymouth Council for New England.

What's the basis for describing the American Indians as communist? (Genuine question, I haven't read or heard anything on this one way or another).

Were Bradley's subjects more or less godly than the kibbutzim?

Kibbutzim have also been forced to privatized: The Kibbutz Sheds Socialism and Gains Popularity

@Joseph, the kibbutzim survived more than the one season Bradley's subjects did. Is it because the kibbutzim were more godly?

More Godly, perhaps but also maybe due to the kibbutzim coming in a wealthier time.

I think this is interesting: . 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.

When there's a social, religious, and possibly chemical/sexual bond underlying the work it doesn't feel like slavery, but when there isn't, it does?

They willingly did the work for their own families, but did it for other families only because they were (or felt) compelled to.

Brandon has it; Work for your own familly is work for your own genome. Evo Psy 101.

paging Mr. Cyrax... hello

Not that any of you care but here is an alternative take on this propaganda.

"capitalist avarice" eh? Maybe Budiansky, or even you, yourself, wouldn't mind sending little unemployed me a turkey and some trimmings and a couple of copies of Budiansky's latest book, gratis.

Of course, the alternate take doesn't even claim to refute anything that Bradford said or that Alex posted.

Ugh... there is a difference between propaganda and what actually happened and is real.

Tom Bethell argues in "The Noblest Triumph" that common ownership among the Pilgrams was at the behest of their investors, and that they opposed it. The contract "stipulated that at the end of seven years everything would be divided equally between investors and colonists."

The colonists wanted to own their own homes and have two days a week to work on their own lands, but the investors were worried that this would lead the colonists to not labor diligently on the common land and make it hard for the investors to recoup their investment.

Which only goes to show that investors do not necessarily make good economic or political theorists.

<cough>Warren Buffett</cough>

Warren Buffett would never dictate how his companies should be run.

It didn't turn out all that well for the indigenous population.

Yes, that's the other 'lesson'.

Elinor Ostrom and others have a slightly different view of this:

It's an interesting historical point but not a very relevant distinction-- the "private corporation" he speaks of was not private in the sense we would recognize in modern times, having as it did essentially the full force of gov't behind it. It appears it was more in the vein of a GSE, something like the Post Office which is granted a monopoly on first-class mail, enforced to the profit of the USPS by the state.

All US corporations obtain their charter from the government just as corporations in England obtained theirs from the Crown. Corporations today pay tribute today just as they did then. And corporations use their money to influence government, just as they did then in the Court, because they provided the means to wage war then, just as they do today. And also the justifications to wage war - then to enable unfettered pillage and plunder of the capital of the Americas, today to enable the pillage and plunder of the capital of Eurasia and Africa.

Patents then were more concrete than patents today, but corporations still seek both patents from the government, and expanded government power put to protecting the patent monopoly for profit.

This is an extremely forced metaphor.

It doesn't seem to me that the broader point hinges on whether it was "really" private or actually an arm of the state. The point is that they tried to implement communism and it failed horribly, both in terms of maximizing social welfare and in terms of producing profits for the investors. The idea that private firms never make mistakes is a strawman, not an actual tenet of libertarianism. The bottom line is that communism doesn't work beyond the family level, even in the context of a broader capitalist framework.

Capitalism/individualism and communism/collectivism in their "pure" form do not work (in any setting) over the long term. Both conflict with some basic aspects of human the real world it's all about the mix.

This is a lame false equivalence. Capitalism has been the driving force behind the advancement of civilization, technology and improving people's lives. It has created all of the wealth that financed every quixotic socialist experiment. Meanwhile, communism has been perhaps the greatest destroyer of lives ever. Yes, capitalist societies have flaws and greed is ugly. On the other hand, communist societies always have capitalism (black markets) so that people can actually obtain what they need to live. Maybe there is some absurdly reductionist version of capitalism that would not work. However, in the real world capitalism works and communism does the opposite of that.

Great piece Alex, thanks for re-sharing.

"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."

File under: Ridiculously Good Sentences.

"What was done was that the enlightened Plymouth government created legal arrangements whereby no settler could be separated from direct legal access to a means of subsistence, access to agricultural land was guaranteed to each family unit and no property ownership rights were conveyed. This was to, in effect, implement a "Job Guaranty" in Plymouth's agricultural based economy"

A better reading of Bradford's account:

The more interesting thing is that commenters could actually be "offended" by Alex's posting critical of communism.

I trust they will show the same sensitivity when others post their ritual exercises denouncing some form of fascism, nazism, and dictatorship. I await their protests outside the next simplistic WW2 film.

crankee, Yes especially since Alex is accurately reporting Bradford's critique of communism.

They would have been more collectivist if they were farming wet rice instead of corn.

Of course, that was then, even in Japan. Today the main problem with agriculture in Japan is the fragmented state of land ownership. All those small plots belonging to part-time farmers with small machines, when the large machines want large plots.

Modes of social organization depend a lot on the means of production.

"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."

Why is it ironic? The first Christian society was the same way. Have you never read the Bible?

Tribal and quasi-collectivist because that's about all that was available doesn't mean communist.

Also: WHAT first Christian society? Rome?

According to the book of Acts, the first Christians (in Jerusalem) held all of their possessions in common. However, they did so voluntarily, and they were not setting up their own economic system. Rather, they were living this way within the mainly capitalist Roman Empire. It is a stretch to call this communism, although it may well have been the inspiration for the Pilgrim's failed collectivist experiment.

Voluntarily? What about the couple that sold their belongings but hide part of the money for themselves? As I remember, they suddenly died.

Silly. It could just as easily be read as evidence of the character flaws of the original settlers or the failure of their particular form of religion to accommodate anything but a selfish form of community organization. Other countries and religions have had very different results.

If you read your link, you'll see a different view.

Some kibbutzim have been criticized for "abandoning" socialist principles and turning to capitalist projects in order to make the kibbutz more self-sufficient economically.


kibbutzim which have not engaged in this sort of development have also been criticized for becoming dependent on state subsidies to survive.

So different country, different religion, similar problems.

I read the link, these problems arose how many years after the formation and continued expansion of the original kibbutzim?

I don't know, your link didn't say.
And how many years would it take to make a difference to your analysis?

Well, if the Massachusetts colony had problems within a couple of years but kibbutzes managed to work for several decades, I'd say that points to something other than pure economics as the reason for the failure - the type of people involved or their culture, for starters.

I take it the kibbutzim were started on a far-off continent in a land with harsh weather?

Abundance can smooth over the problems of any economic system.

Imagine the 20-30 million lives that could have been spared if Mao Zedong had read up on early American history...

Yet, it's amazing how many people still don't appreciate the value of giving people more choices...

A book that will expand your knowledge of the economics of the Pilgrims:

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