November 28, 2002
More reason to give thanks
Pilgrims Respond to Incentives and Give Thanks: Caroline Baum
(Commentary. Caroline Baum is a columnist for Bloomberg News and host of "No Nonsense'' on Bloomberg Radio. The opinions expressed are her own.)
New York, Nov. 27 (Bloomberg) -- It is the tradition of this columnist every year at this time to tell the story of Thanksgiving. For source material, I am grateful to the accounts of William Bradford, the first governor of the Plymouth Bay Colony (Bradford's History "Of Plimoth Plantation'').
Most Americans think of Thanksgiving as a time to gather with family and friends and celebrate with a huge feast. If they have any idea of the origin of this national holiday, declared each year by presidential proclamation, it's probably confined to the idea that the Pilgrims were grateful for a good harvest in their new land and set aside a day to give thanks.
What they don't know is that things weren't always so good for the Pilgrims, who came to the New World from England to escape religious persecution. Their first winters after they landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 and established the Plymouth Bay Colony were harsh. The weather was lousy and crop yields were poor. Half the Pilgrims died or returned to England.
Those who stayed in the New World went hungry. Despite their deep religious conviction, the colonists took to stealing from one another.
In the spring of 1623, following three grueling winters and widespread famine, Governor Bradford and the others "begane to thinke how they might raise as much corne as they could, and obtain a beter crope then they had done, that they might not still thus languish in miserie,'' Bradford relates in his History.
New World, Old Problem
One of the traditions the Pilgrims brought with them from England was something called "farming in common.'' The colonists pooled the fruits of their labor and rationed the harvest.
The idea that "ye taking away of propertie, and bringing them into comone wealth, would make them happy and flourishing'' was misplaced. Instead, "this comunitie was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employmet that would have been to their benefite and comforte.''
Young and able men resented working hard for other men and their families without compensation.
So after three winters of starvation, Bradford instituted a new policy when it came time to plant in the spring of 1623. He set aside a plot of land for each family, allowing each to "plant for his owne perticuler, and in that regard trust to them selves.''
For the colonists, the results were nothing short of miraculous. The women now went willingly into the field, carrying their young children with them. Those who previously claimed to be too ill or weak to work, given an incentive, were eager to till their own plot of land.
Bradford writes of the new plan: "This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corne was planted then other waise would have bene by any means ye Govr or any other could use, and saved him a great deall of trouble, and gave farr better contente.''
Yet it was no miracle. Without knowing it, Bradford and the Pilgrims discovered what Eastern Europe learned -- the hard way -- more than 350 years later: socialism doesn't work. Deprived of property rights and lacking economic incentives to work, produce and save, human beings behave in a predictable manner.
It was that way in 1620, and it's that way now.
Allowing the Pilgrims to farm their own plot of land and reap the benefits produced a bountiful harvest in the fall of 1623. They set aside "a day of thanksgiving'' to thank God for their good fortune.
From that day forth, "Any generall wante or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day,'' Bradford writes in an entry from 1647, the last year covered by his History.
Pretty soon, the colonists had more than enough food for their own needs and started to trade their surplus corn for other commodities, such as furs.
After three winters of famine, the Pilgrims viewed their times of plenty as a stroke of good fortune. Today we know fortune had nothing to do with it.
With the national debate currently focused on the merits of incentive-creating tax cuts, the story of the Pilgrims' hardships under a collectivist system and the seeming miracle of capitalism is worth acknowledging. On Thanksgiving, we give thanks for the system of government that allows our market economy to flourish.
--Caroline Baum in the New York newsroom