There’s an odd debate in the blogosphere. As happens every Thanksgiving, libertarians and conservatives take joy in pointing out that there was mass starvation and suffering during the early years of the Plymouth Colony because of a socialist economic model. Here’s what John Stossel recently wrote.
Long before the failure of modern socialism, the earliest European settlers gave us a dramatic demonstration of the fatal flaws of collectivism. Unfortunately, few Americans today know it. The Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony organized their farm economy along communal lines. The goal was to share the work and produce equally. That’s why they nearly all starved. When people can get the same return with less effort, most people make less 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. 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.” In other words, 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.”
My colleague Dan Griswold has a blog post making the same point. And here’s a new video from the prolific folks at Reason TV.
This story must bother the statists. For the first time I can remember, they tried to push back this year. A blogger called Liberal Curmudgeon attempted to puncture the supposed myth, blaming the Colony’s woes on lazy Englishmen.
The real problem, though, was that the men recruited for Jamestown and Plymouth were expecting quick and easy riches without having to work at all.
That’s an interesting theory, and Andrew Sullivan swallows it, hook, line, and sinker (apparently any criticism of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck must be true).
But this argument suffers from a couple of flaws. Don Boudreaux deals with one of the problems in his post, but I have a much simpler criticism for Andrew Sullivan, the Liberal Curmudgeon, et al.
If the Plymouth Colony initially was failing because of the wrong type of people, why did those wrong people suddenly succeed once communalism was replaced with private property?
Maybe statists have a good answer to this question, but I won’t be holding my breath.
So the real lesson of Thanksgiving (at least from an economics perspective), is that incentives matter. The Pilgrims figured this out and changed course. Nearly four hundred years later, the question for today is whether Obama is similarly capable of learning from his mistakes.