How Private Property Saved the Pilgrims

Today is Thanksgiving. So it’s time for my annual post on how private property rights saved the Pilgrims. Economist Benjamin Powell tells the story here:

Many people believe that after suffering through a severe winter, the Pilgrims’ food shortages were resolved the following spring when the Native Americans taught them to plant corn and a Thanksgiving celebration resulted. In fact, the pilgrims continued to face chronic food shortages for three years until the harvest of 1623. Bad weather or lack of farming knowledge did not cause the pilgrims’ shortages. Bad economic incentives did.

In 1620 Plymouth Plantation was founded with a system of communal property rights. Food and supplies were held in common and then distributed based on equality and need as determined by Plantation officials. People received the same rations whether or not they contributed to producing the food, and residents were forbidden from producing their own food. Governor William Bradford, in his 1647 history, Of Plymouth Plantation, wrote that this system was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. The problem was that young men, that were most able and fit for labour, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. Because of the poor incentives, little food was produced.

Faced with potential starvation in the spring of 1623, the colony decided to implement a new economic system. Every family was assigned a private parcel of land. They could then keep all they grew for themselves, but now they alone were responsible for feeding themselves. While not a complete private property system, the move away from communal ownership had dramatic results.

This change, Bradford wrote, had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. Giving people economic incentives changed their behavior. Once the new system of property rights was in place, the women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability.

Once the Pilgrims in the Plymouth Plantation abandoned their communal economic system and adopted one with greater individual property rights, they never again faced the starvation and food shortages of the first three years. It was only after allowing greater property rights that they could feast without worrying that famine was just around the corner.

This 1999 article by Tom Bethell has a more detailed account.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

UPDATE: Reason TV has more on this subject here.

UPDATE #2: For the benefit of various commenters, it’s worth nothing that, contrary to popular mythology, Native Americans made extensive use of property rights too. Other commenters try to defeat my point by noting that Plymouth Plantation was a corporation. However, corporations had a very different status in 17th century England than today. They were not purely private organizations, but individually chartered by the government to carry out purposes specifically mandated by the state. Until the establishment of general incorporation laws in the 19th century, it was not possible for any private party to form a corporation at will for the purpose of pursuing its own goals. More to the point, this corporation, like some others at the time, was specifically created to carry out governmental functions: it was given a monopoly of force, control of the justice system, and every other power typically wielded by the state. Local governments in England were legally referred to as “corporations” and regulated by such laws as the Corporation Act of 1661. The fact that a government is called a “corporation” for legal purposes does not change its nature. If the United States government changed its name to “USA, Inc.” tomorrow, it would not thereby cease to be a government.

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