View in your browser.

This Thanksgiving eve, those of you with social media accounts have, I hope, encountered John Stossel’s very welcome column today, "The Lost Lesson of Thanksgiving." In it Stossel revisits the history of this most American holiday in light of early American settlers’ abandonment of collectivism.

The Pilgrim setters of Plymouth initially set up their land ownership along the fair and equal lines that atavistic statists envision as ideal. Consequentially, as Stossel said, "they nearly all starved."

In desperation, the settlers at Plymouth moved to private farming. Consequentially, as Gov. William Bradford recorded,

it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. 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. (Emphasis added)

The first Thanksgiving was held that November in 1623.

Stossel explained the economics behind the turnaround from near-starvation in 1621-22 to plenty and thanksgiving in 1623 (longtime readers of the John Locke Foundation’s blog may recall that a year later, there was such a great surplus that Plymouth began exporting corn in 1624):

What Plymouth suffered under communalism was what economists today call the tragedy of the commons. The problem has been known since ancient Greece. As Aristotle noted, "That which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it."

If individuals can take from a common pot regardless of how much they put in it, each person has an incentive to be a free-rider, to do as little as possible and take as much as possible because what one fails to take will be taken by someone else. Soon, the pot is empty.

What private property does — as the Pilgrims discovered — is connect effort to reward, creating an incentive for people to produce far more. Then, if there’s a free market, people will trade their surpluses to others for the things they lack. Mutual exchange for mutual benefit makes the community richer.

That last paragraph ought to be committed to memory by anyone aspiring to political office or, for that matter, professional or amateur political punditry.

From laziness to busy-ness, through private ownership

Plymouth was not the only American colony to learn this lesson after very nearly destroying itself with collectivism. In the colony at Jamestown, as Robert C. Ellickson of Yale Law School wrote in his far-ranging and influential paper "Property in Land" in 1993, "land was held as a collective asset" and each settler was "guaranteed an equal share of the common output regardless of the amount of work personally contributed."

Not surprising to those of us who know human nature and the economics as illuminated by Stossel above, "the hallmark of the Jamestown colony was idleness."

Ellickson wrote:

To the puzzlement of historians, the starving settlers shirked from catching fish and growing food. The most enduring image of Jamestown dates from May 1611, when Sir Thomas Dale found the inhabitants at "their daily and usuall workes, bowling in the streetes."

To be clear, this was the "daily work" of settlers just two years removed from a particularly cruel famine in 1609 that had reduced the colony’s population from 500 to only 60.

Ellickson recounts the consequences of Jamestown’s turn from collectivism to privatized agriculture (emphasis added):

Then, in 1614, Governor Dale began assigning three-acre plots to settlers. According to Captain John Smith, this improved productivity at least sevenfold:

When our people were fed out of the common store, and laboured jointly together, glad was he could slip from his labour, or slumber over his taske he cared not how, nay, the most honest among them would hardly take so much true paines in a weeke, as now for themselves they will doe in a day, neither cared they for the increase, presuming that howsoever the harvest prospered, the generall store must maintaine them, so that wee reaped not so much Corne from the labours of thirtie, as now three or foure doe provide for themselves. To prevent which, Sir Thomas Dale hath allotted every man three Acres of cleare ground….

The "Great Charter of 1619" capped Jamestown’s march toward decentralized agriculture. Although the Great Charter kept some lands in common ownership, its greatness lay in its broad distribution of entitlements to establish private farms.

Agricultural productivity unquestionably improved at Jamestown as lands were privatized. By around 1620, farmers were energetically growing tobacco, a profitable export crop.

This colony, too, suffered from a "hallmark of idleness" under collectivization whereby the least productive was guaranteed the same share as the most. It was transformed by private ownership into an entrepreneurial society where "farmers were energetically growing" a "profitable export crop."

A duty to unleash

"If we look to the answer as to why, for so many years, we achieved so much, prospered as no other people on Earth," Ronald Reagan said,

it was because here, in this land, we unleashed the energy and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done before. Freedom and the dignity of the individual have been more available and assured here than in any other place on Earth. The price for this freedom at times has been high, but we have never been unwilling to pay that price.

That last line, once a boast, now stings a little. Not coincidentally, with the current regime always ready to apply leashes on that energy and individual genius, we are seeing charts like the following, which shows a smaller proportion of able-bodied Americans choosing to work:

As Plymouth and Jamestown on through to the Reagan years showed, that energy and individual genius are ever-present, though they decline into dormancy under collectivism that severs the connection between effort and reward. Restoring that connection — unleashing that energy and genius — requires limiting government and protecting individual freedom and private property.

Click here for the Rights & Regulation Update archive.