A real thanksgiving lesson for the pilgrims

Reprinted from Independent Institute

Holiday and football. That’s what many of us think about Thanksgiving. Most people identify the origin of the holiday with the first rich harvest of the pilgrims. But few understand how the Pilgrims actually solved their chronic food shortage.

Many people believe that after a harsh winter, the Pilgrims’ food shortage was resolved the following spring when Native Americans taught them how to plant corn, leading to Thanksgiving celebrations. In fact, the pilgrims continued to face chronic food shortages for three years until the 1623 harvest. Bad weather or lack of agricultural knowledge was not the reason for the shortage of pilgrims. Bad economic incentives did it.

In 1620, Plymouth Plantation was established with a system of common property rights. Food and supplies were owned in common and then distributed on the basis of “equality” and “need” as determined by plantation officials. People received the same rations whether they participated in food production or not, and residents were forbidden to produce their own food. Governor William Bradford in his 1647 history Plymouth Plantation, wrote that this system “has been found to be the cause of much disorder and discontent, and hinders many pursuits which would be to their benefit and comfort.” The problem was that “young men, the most capable and fit for the job, complained that they must spend their time and energy working for other people’s wives and children without any remuneration.” Little food was produced due to bad incentives.

Faced with a possible famine in the spring of 1623, the colony decided to introduce a new economic system. Each family was given a separate piece of land. Then they could save all they grew up for themselves, but now they alone were responsible for feeding themselves. Although it was not a complete system of private property, the rejection of communal property had dramatic results.

This change, wrote Bradford, “was a very good success, because it made all hands very industrious, so that much more corn was planted than might otherwise have been.” Giving people economic incentives changed their behavior. As soon as the new system of property rights was introduced, “women now willingly went to the fields and took their children with them to plant corn; which previously would have spoken of weakness and incapacity.

Once the Pilgrims on the Plymouth Plantation abandoned their communal economic system and adopted a system with greater private property rights, they never again faced hunger and food shortages as in the first three years. Only after greater property rights were granted could they feast without worrying that famine was just around the corner.

We are the direct beneficiaries of the economics lesson learned by the Pilgrims in 1623. Today, we have a much better developed and well-defined set of property rights. Our economic system offers us incentives—in the form of prices and profits—to coordinate our individual behavior for the benefit of all; even those we may not know personally.

It is customary in many families to “thank the hands that prepared this feast” during the Thanksgiving dinner blessing. Perhaps we should also be grateful to the millions of other people who helped bring dinner to the table: the grocer who sold us the turkey, the truck driver who delivered it to the store, and the farmer who picked it up all contributed to our Thanksgiving. . dinner because our economic system rewards them. This is a real Thanksgiving lesson. The economic incentives provided by private competitive markets, where people are free to make their own choices, make large feasts possible.

Benjamin Powell

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