November 24, 2010

Giving Thanks for Private Enterprise

[This article by Brandon Dutcher appeared in the November 3, 2006 edition of the Muskogee Phoenix.]

Americans have many things to be grateful for this Thanksgiving, not the least of which is a standard of living which would positively boggle the minds of our Pilgrim forebears.

But do we fully appreciate what makes our prosperity possible?

You probably recall from your elementary-school days the story of the first Thanksgiving. The leading fifth-grade textbooks in Oklahoma, for example, are fairly typical: The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in December of 1620. Food supplies were low, and it was too late in the year to grow crops. The winter was merciless: tuberculosis, pneumonia, and malnutrition wiped out half the Pilgrims. But come springtime the Indians taught the remaining colonists how to fish, hunt, and plant corn, and in the fall a bountiful harvest gave rise to the first Thanksgiving.

That story is good enough as far as it goes, but it leaves out a crucial reason for the Pilgrims’ longer-term prosperity: private enterprise.

The historian Russell Kirk reminds us that “for their first two years at Plymouth, the colonists lived by an economic plan” which was “a form of communism: all households shared equally in whatever the colonists could produce.”

Father Robert A. Sirico, president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, says the Plymouth colony had “declared all pastures and produce in common and enshrined this principle in law. The result was economic chaos, disease and starvation.”

The colony’s young governor, William Bradford, knew something had to be done. “For in this instance,” he wrote in his diary, “community of property (so far as it went) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment which would have been to the general benefit and comfort. For the young men who were most able and fit for service objected to being forced to spend their time and strength in working for other men’s wives and children, without any recompense. The strong man or the resourceful man had no more share of food, clothes, etc., than the weak man who was not able to do a quarter the other could. This was thought injustice.”

Bradford placed the blame squarely on “this communistic plan of life,” and believed that “God in His wisdom saw that another plan of life was fitter” for human beings trying to forge a civil society. A devout Christian, Bradford seemingly understood that God had granted property to the heads of families, not to the state.

So “after much debate,” Bradford recorded in his diary, “every family was assigned a parcel of land” and each man was allowed “to plant corn for his own household.”

The result? “This was very successful,” Bradford wrote. “It made all hands very industrious, so that much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could devise, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better satisfaction.”

In his 1994 book The Theme Is Freedom, M. Stanton Evans explained that “in both Virginia and Plymouth, for slightly different reasons, initial arrangements with the sponsoring London merchants prevented the colonists from owning and reaping the benefits of private property. Predictably enough, the communal set-up proved disastrous in terms of incentives and resulting output, so that both infant states were threatened with starvation. The upshot in both cases was that the settlers converted as soon as they were able to a system of private ownership, and reward for private effort.”

“Never again were the Pilgrims short of food,” adds Kirk. “Thereafter, despite a harsh climate, poor communication with Britain, troubles with the Indians, pirates who took their cargoes, and other handicaps, the Pilgrims’ economy began to prosper.”

The lesson was not lost on Governor Bradford. He wrote: “The failure of this experiment of communal service, which was tried for several years, and by good and honest men proves the emptiness of the theory of Plato and other ancients, applauded by some of later times -- that the taking away of private property, and the possession of it in community, by a commonwealth, would make a state happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God.”

Interestingly, in this Bradford anticipated Marx and Engels, who two centuries later would sum up the theory of communism in one dreadful phrase: “Abolition of private property.”

Thankfully, few if any American policy-makers today are calling for the outright abolition of private property. But many, especially on the left, continue to propose laws and regulations disrespectful of the people’s property rights. This month’s holiday is a good time to be reminded that “even today,” as Father Sirico put it, “we set aside a day to give thanks to God, who commanded us to till and keep the land while forbidding us from taking what belongs to others.”

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