Centuries before the Communist Manifesto was even published, the Pilgrims set up an economic system that looked similar to the “utopia” advocated by Karl Marx. In the early plantation, there was no such thing as private property or division of labor. It was even forbidden for an individual to produce their own food. All food and supplies were held in common. Plantation officials were supposed to equally distribute goods to all. Plymouth County Governor William Bradford wrote, “the taking away of property, and bringing in community into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing.” Needless to say, the colonists didn’t live happily ever after.
The Pilgrims experienced chronic food shortages. Half of the Pilgrims died or went back to England in the first year alone. Governor William Bradford writes in this diary, “So as it well appeared that the famine must still ensue the next year, also, if not some way prevented.” In most classrooms, students learn that various external factors are to blame for the Pilgrim’s suffering. But as economics Professor Benjamin Powell states, “Bad weather or lack of farming knowledge did not cause the pilgrims’ shortages. Bad economic incentives did.”
Incentives matter. Since all colonists received the same rations whether they contributed or not, there was little incentive to actually help produce any food. People quickly realized that it was easier to do nothing and still get rewarded. Despite their Puritan religious convictions, many Pilgrims stole food from one another. Other settlers faked illnesses to get out of work. It was a deadly disaster.
In 1621 and 1622, the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians did share two meals together. But it wasn’t until the “miracle of 1623″ that they celebrated a bountiful feast like we do today. As Governor William Bradford wrote that year, “instead of famine now God gave them plenty.” This was the year that Bradford switched to a more capitalist system.
After three winters of misery, Governor William Bradford finally changed course. He began to note the flaws of communism, “For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.”
Private property saved the Pilgrims. The Governor decided to assign “every family a parcel of land” to do with it as they saw fit. Some kept what they produced and others mutually exchanged goods with other Pilgrims. Finally, families could enjoy the fruits of their own labor. The results were dramatic. Never again did they face starvation and food shortages comparable to those dreaded first years. The greater system of property rights allowed everyone to live a richer and fuller life.
In 1623, Governor William Bradford states that this more capitalism system “had very good success for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. By this time harvest was come…the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many.”
Before we sit down to consume our plentiful Thanksgiving meal, we ought to thank capitalism. It has enabled America to become the freest and richest country ever known to man. Let us not forget the lessons of colonial America: communism will always fail to produce a happy and prosperous society.