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The True Meaning of Thanksgiving: Private Enterprise in America

[Editor’s Note: Richard Ebeling, a noted classical liberal scholar, teaches economics at Northwood University in Midland, Michigan. This post is reprinted with his permission from Northwood's blogsite, In Defense of Capitalism & Human Progress.]

This time of the year, whether in good economic times or bad, is when Americans gather with their families and friends and enjoy a Thanksgiving meal together. It marks a remembrance of those early Pilgrim Fathers who crossed the uncharted ocean from Europe to make a new start in Plymouth, Massachusetts. What is less appreciated is that Thanksgiving also is a celebration of the birth of free enterprise in America.

The English Puritans, who left Great Britain and sailed across the Atlantic on the Mayflower in 1620, were not only escaping from religious persecution in their homeland. They also wanted to turn their back on what they viewed as the materialistic and greedy corruption of the Old World.

In the New World, they wanted to erect a New Jerusalem that would not only be religiously devout, but be built on a new foundation of communal sharing and social altruism. Their goal was the communism of Plato’s Republic, in which all would work and share in common, knowing neither private property nor self-interested acquisitiveness.

What resulted is recorded in the diary of Governor William Bradford, the head of the colony. The colonists collectively cleared and worked land, but they brought forth neither the bountiful harvest they hoped for, nor did it create a spirit of shared and cheerful brotherhood.

The less industrious members of the colony came late to their work in the fields, and were slow and easy in their labors. Knowing that they and their families were to receive an equal share of whatever the group produced, they saw little reason to be more diligent in their efforts. The harder working among the colonists became resentful that their efforts would be redistributed to the more malingering members of the colony. Soon they, too, were coming late to work and were less energetic in the fields.

As Governor Bradford explained in his old English (though with the spelling modernized):

For the young men that were able and fit for labor and service did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children, without recompense. The strong, or men of parts, had no more division of food, clothes, etc. then he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labor, and food, clothes, etc. with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignant and disrespect unto them. And for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc. they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could husbands brook it.

Because of the disincentives and resentments that spread among the population, crops were sparse and the rationed equal shares from the collective harvest were not enough to ward off starvation and death. Two years of communism in practice had left alive only a fraction of the original number of the Plymouth colonists.

Realizing that another season like those that had just passed would mean the extinction of the entire community, the elders of the colony decided to try something radically different: the introduction of private property rights and the right of the individual families to keep the fruits of their own labor.

As Governor Bradford put it:

And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end . . . This had a very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted then 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 women now went willingly into the field, and took their little-ones with them to set corn, which before would a ledge weakness, and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.

The Plymouth Colony experienced a great bounty of food. Private ownership meant that there was now a close link between work and reward. Industry became the order of the day as the men and women in each family went to the fields on their separate private farms. When the harvest time came, not only did many families produce enough for their own needs, but they had surpluses that they could freely exchange with their neighbors for mutual benefit and improvement.

In Governor Bradford’s words:

By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine, now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many, for which they blessed God. And the effect of their planting was well seen, for all had, one way or other, pretty well to bring the year about, and some of the abler sort and more industrious had to spare, and sell to others, so as any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.

Hard experience had taught the Plymouth colonists the fallacy and error in the ideas that since the time of the ancient Greeks had promised paradise through collectivism rather than individualism. As Governor Bradford expressed it:

The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years, and that amongst the Godly and sober men, may well convince of the vanity and conceit of Plato’s and other ancients; — that the taking away of property, and bringing into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed confusion and discontent, and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.

Was this realization that communism was incompatible with human nature and the prosperity of humanity to be despaired or be a cause for guilt? Not in Governor Bradford’s eyes. It was simply a matter of accepting that altruism and collectivism were inconsistent with the nature of man, and that human institutions should reflect the reality of man’s nature if he is to prosper. Said Governor Bradford:

Let none object this is man’s corruption, and nothing to the curse itself. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in his wisdom saw another course fitter for them.

The desire to “spread the wealth” and for government to plan and regulate people’s lives is as old as the utopian fantasy in Plato’s Republic. The Pilgrim Fathers tried and soon realized its bankruptcy and failure as a way for men to live together in society.

They, instead, accepted man as he is: hardworking, productive, and innovative when allowed the liberty to follow his own interests in improving his own circumstances and that of his family. And even more, out of his industry result the quantities of useful goods that enable men to trade to their mutual benefit.

In the wilderness of the New World, the Plymouth Pilgrims had progressed from the false dream of communism to the sound realism of capitalism. At a time of economic uncertainty, it is worthwhile recalling this beginning of the American experiment and experience with freedom.

This is the lesson of the First Thanksgiving. This year, when we, Americans sit around our dining table with family and friends, we should also remember that what we are really celebrating is the birth of free men and free enterprise in that New World of America.

The true meaning of Thanksgiving, in other words, is the triumph of Capitalism over the failure of Collectivism in all its forms. In light of America’s current political debates over health care and energy, involving 25 percent of our economy, the message of Thanksgiving is more timely than ever.

4 comments

1 Chris { 11.30.09 at 11:00 am }

Great article. But you ignored the main counter-argument of today made by Obama and other liberals. It is not about collectivism, but about fairness, i.e., income needs to be redistributed to those who have not received a fair chance in today’s competitive world. It’s kind of like spreading points around to inferior teams (i.e., it’s only fair). The fairness argument lies on top of the social safety net argument (the rational behind social security, medicare, welfare, food stamps, housing assistance, medicaid, chip, etc.). Thus, an additional lever for c0ntinual expansion of government spending. This works politically since how do you define fair?

2 Sabin Colton { 12.01.09 at 3:51 pm }

The idea of fair is another politically correct idea – sounds good, but there is evil beneath. The assumption, unspoken, is that society oppresses and specifically denies some (they assume a lot) a chance to get ahead. But, if you look at the lower classes and look even closer at the dynamics over time, you will find a surprisingly large turnover from down there as people move up and out. That’s the American model and ideal – moving on up. The politicians would rather have us believe that the lower classes are stagnant and denied opportunity. Add to this the misleading idea that people should expect to have jobs be provided for them. It is not the government’s job to create jobs. It might be their job to create a healthy free enterprise environment – good security from outside powers and truly fair laws for free trade and entreprenureship.

We have to be proactive for ourselves, go out and find jobs and be willing to work. There are two closely related ethnic groups, to go un-named here, that have two vastly different approaches to jobs. One group immigrates to the US and settles where their relatives are and then complain that there are no jobs, and want handouts and benefits. The other group immigrates and disperses to where the jobs are. The money sent from this latter group to relatives in the old country actually represents a fair fraction of the old country’s GNP!

The idea of really being fair would be to really prevent discrimination, as we try to do today, and evenly apply the law. The rest is up to the individual. Just like everything else in a free country, we have the right to the pursuit of happiness, but we also have every right to not do so, to fail. We have a right to healthcare, if we seek to buy it, but we also have the right not to seek it and to be ill, if that is our gig.

To use the idea of “fair” to mean giving freebees to people who do not motivate themselves to go out and work is not fair to anybody. You not only take the honest earnings of the workers but you undermine the need of the not working people to seek work at all. No one wins, unless, of course, the goal is to create a society dependent on the state for services and support = a nanny state in which the government runs virtually everything.

In not a few cases, the need to buy healthcare has been the motivation for a couple, who could squeak by on a little or on one income, to go out and get a second job and then live well as the second job brings in more than enough for healthcare.

What has been forgotten by more than one recent generation is that before the 1950s prosperity, most families were two income households and one income families were not the norm. The single income family of the 1950s was a nice model for that time, but it was not realistic in the long run. Unfortunately, many hang on to this unrealistic, historically unusual, model.

Europe, fast approaching a nanny state, is so full of regulations now that you need a license to go sailing.

3 Chris { 12.01.09 at 4:34 pm }

Sabin,

Despite your excellent reply, you do not understand. The manner in which the free market determines salaries (for example) is not fair. Why do engineers with 1o years of experience make $100,000 per year when waitresses make far less? Aren’t both contributing to society in their own way? It’s not fair for one group of workers to make more than another group of equally earnest group of workers. Since most engineers work for those greedy, fat-cat corporations (thus, setting the pay level for all engineers wherever they work), that probably explains most of the discrepancy in pay. (Note: above thoughts are highly scarcastic.).

In capitalism versus collectivism, it’s people who work and produce versus people who let others do all the work for them. Today, it’s capitalism versus “regulated” capitalism. It’s people who work and highly paid versus people who work but are not highly paid because of low skills, overseas competion, immigrant labor, etc. Listen, a good portion of the electorate want to believe they have been shafted by somebody or something. No one wants to hear that they are a failure. So, they blame the messanger (i.e., capitalism), instead of the message (which they themselves created).

So, here comes Obama, who promises to take a little more from one group of highly productive workers (who are supposedly inordinately paid) and sprinkle it around to those who have been shafted by our unfair means of compensating workers.

Finally, how often have you heard that we wouldn’t be in this financial mess if people just paid their monthly mortgages (or never refinanced at a higher level to pay for a new kitchen)? Probably zero. Again, no one wants to go on record telling people that they are losers. Saying the system is unfair is a lot easier.

4 Darrell Stoddard { 11.23.10 at 5:27 pm }

Fifty years ago in China under the state collective farms, 30 million people were starving to death. The government planners believed that by mechanizing and standardizing the peasants and the farms, they could produce an abundance. After all, educated specialists in government knew more about efficiency and farming than the ignorant peasants. The Commune System of farming was a total failure. Millions still starved.

Today there is more than enough food in China to feed the starving masses. Was this accomplished by better regimentation, better planning and better farm machinery? The answer is NO!!! It was ever so simple. They broke up the collective farms and gave the land back to the peasants, making each peasant free to realize the fruits of their own labor.

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