Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Pilgrims' Most Important Discovery

I have tried to find a link to the original article, and after severla failures, i have decided to simply post the relevent passages here:

From “The Pilgrim’s Most Important Discovery” by Robert Sirico, WSJ Nov. 26, 1997

Thankfulness for prosperity is the mark of the season. But as you enjoy the holiday feast tomorrow, remember that only private property makes prosperity possible--a hard lesson the original Pilgrims learned in the years after their arrival in North America.

In 1617, when the Pilgrims decided to leave the Netherlands, they formed a partnership in a joint-stock company with a group of London merchants. The company, John Peirce & Associates, received a grant for a plantation in the Virginia colony, but the Pilgrims missed the mark and landed along the Massachusetts coast instead. According to the terms of the contract, each adult would be given a share in the company, but the earnings would not be divided among the shareholders for seven years. The Pilgrims' sense of collective ownership was already established when they set sail for the New World.

Once they landed in 1620, the Plymouth colony, following the advice of the company, declared all pastures and produce in common and enshrined this principle in law. The result was economic chaos, disease and starvation. After the first winter, half the colonists had died. It was 1623 before private property rights were established in land, and each stockholder was allowed to cultivate food at a profit.

Textbooks typically blame the weather for this disaster. But William Bradford, governor of the colony, who instituted the New World's first privatization, had a different opinion. Faced with a crisis, he wrote in his diary, the colonists "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." So Bradford "assigned to every family a parcel of land." "This had very good success for it made all the 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 previous socialist policy, Bradford wrote, had proved the "vanity of that conceit of Plato's . . . that the taking away of property and brining community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing." In fact, socialism "was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort."
It was Bradford's decision to draw clear lines of ownership, far more than a turn in the weather or better production techniques, that allowed for the first plentiful harvest and gave us the first Thanksgiving…

Property is not an ultimate value, but a means to an end. It allows us to make use of our individual talents, to take risks, to be charitable and to imbue our lives with ultimate meaning. It is the foundation of a growing economy, a reward for work, a means of security and a source of order in our lives. By allowing us to make contracts and to share, it deters human conflict and shores up social peace. Without private property, the state pretends to rule on everyone's behalf, always with the same disastrous results.


poor boomer said...

Poor people in the US, lacking property rights, tend to remain poor.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious if Bradford mentioned anything about "the commons." I'm under the impression that the notion of "the commons" originated in New England. My conception is that each town had a communal well and such that reduced the need for extra individual effort to provide things that were better shared. Certainly the Pilgrims share certain services such as defense, fire fighting, etc., didn't they?

What did the Pilgrims do about the poor, the widowed, the orphaned? What is the modern equivalent of those? For example once the tragedy of the neighbor's barn burned to the ground was shared by all the neighbors gathering to build a new barn. The co-operation of all was assured a sense of obligation or, at least, by the knowledge that if they didn't help, they wouldn't get if the same fate befell them. Today that outcome is provided by insurance.