America’s Global Thanksgiving Lessons

Sometime next week, President Biden will follow his predecessors in a life-saving ceremony. But little attention will be paid, as a presidential pardon will be granted to a pet turkey. However, this ritual is part of the American Thanksgiving, a holiday rich in tradition and fraught with important lessons that can guide us all in times of global economic turmoil.

Everything starts with globalization. Like many holidays, Thanksgiving has become international. For some reason, people around the world celebrate this distinctly North American holiday on the fourth Thursday of every November.

A popular misconception is that Thanksgiving is a religious holiday, as the first celebration involved a colony of devout Christians worshiping after a bountiful harvest. However, this day has a broad secular focus and unites all people of all faiths or none at all.

In all cases, divine intervention had less to do with the celebration associated with this day of feasting. Instead, the worldly changes in the economic system followed by the Pilgrim colony led to a successful harvest and brought about the first Thanksgiving.

A full understanding of this statement requires clarity in the account of the Pilgrim’s journey. Every American schoolboy knows that the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts and founded New Plymouth in November 1620.

It is erroneously reported that the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving shortly after their arrival with some Native Americans. Although the Pilgrims were indebted to the locals for teaching them local customs, such as fertilizing corn with fish, there were no American natives on the original Thanksgiving.

During the three-day feast that took place after the execution in the autumn of 1621, there were No first Thanksgiving. The harvest celebrated on the first Thanksgiving came later, after the Pilgrims abandoned the form of agricultural socialism they had followed since arriving in the New World. To a large extent, the first Thanksgiving celebrated the surge in production driven by the desire for individualism and incentives associated with the free market.

A historical note on Thanksgiving can be found in the records of the colony’s governor, William Bradford. He tells us that the Pilgrim’s English sponsors wanted crops and trade goods to be “in the common fund” and distributed according to the religious beliefs of the colony.

Bradford wrote that this common property experiment was intended to make the colony prosper. Like other applications of communalism, this has led to disastrous results. The Pilgrims, as the Soviets discovered centuries later, discovered that people work harder and better when there are incentives that allow them to maintain and enjoy the fruits of their efforts.

So, faced with an impending famine in the early months of 1623, the Pilgrims called a meeting to try to avoid almost certain starvation. (Indeed, the Pilgrims’ initial experience mirrored an earlier colonial-era failed experiment at Jamestown, where half of the original settlers either starved or succumbed to disease.)

In turn, they decided to abandon the communal arrangement for distribution according to the principle “from each according to his means, to each according to his needs.” Instead, according to Bradford, from then on “they should allocate corn to every man for his personal needs.”

The new arrangements provided for a limited form of private property rights, although the land was still in common ownership. But each family cultivated its own piece of land and could keep what they had grown, even if they could not pass the land on to their heirs. (Similar agricultural reforms were launched in China in 1978 under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping. After centuries of famine, China is now self-sufficient in many foods and a net exporter of others.)

The colonists sharply increased their industriousness, but the next summer they found them in the throes of a drought. In accordance with their religious beliefs, they brought appropriate repentance for their sins.

When a drought struck and their crops were saved, the pilgrims took it as an act of divine providence. If anything, their new economic system based on individual effort ensured that they could produce enough food in the future.

So Thanksgiving is an opportunity to celebrate the institutions of individualism, private property, and freedom. Despite recent frustrations in the way the world economy works, the system of freedom ingrained in America’s national heritage has made it a wealthy and hospitable nation. In fact, countries with similar institutional arrangements are more likely to be wealthy and enjoy the most freedoms. And for that they should all be grateful.

Christopher Lingle

Christopher Lingle

Christopher Lingle is a Visiting Senior Fellow at AIER, Visiting Professor of Economics at the Escuela de Negocios of the Francisco Marroquina University in Guatemala, Research Fellow at the Center for Civil Society (New Delhi), Adviser on International Political and Economic Affairs at the Asian Institute of Diplomacy and International Affairs (AIDIA – Kathmandu) ), Senior International Fellow at the Property Rights Institute (USA), Senior Fellow at the Center for Market Education (Malaysia) and Senior Visiting Fellow, lawyer (Colombo, Sri Lanka).

His research interests lie in political economy and international economics with a focus on emerging market economies and public policy reforms in Eastern and Central Europe, East Asia, Latin America and South Africa.

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