Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Thanksgiving Lessons

John Stossel, writing at Real Clear Politics, marks tomorrow’s US observance of Thanksgiving with a little known and less remarked lesson from the first Thanksgiving Day. Call it the New World’s first object lesson in the innate and inevitable failure of communalism.

Stossel recounts Pilgrim history not found nor mentioned in today’s heavily socialized public school curricula. Most of us remember Pilgrim stories, about how the first European settlers nearly starved themselves out of existence those first two years. Many of us were either taught overtly or surmised that only by the intervention and instruction of big hearted and ecologically grounded natives did the Pilgrims find their footing, and survive.

Most Americans of any age share a stereotypic and cartoonish view of (all) Native American cultures as quintessentially communalist: they all hunt together, roam together, eat and live together, in tightly connected family, clan and tribal alignments.

Thanks to primary sources left behind by the Pilgrims, we can know that attempts at sharing labor and the fruits of that labor in the settlement had failed. Two years of collective farming and resource sharing brought them famine and want. Immediate introduction of privatized farming led to plenty and sufficiency.

However much the Pilgrims learned from their native hosts, they learned something very different from their own social experiment. In contrast perhaps to their native American hosts, white European settlers tended to take advantage of communal social solutions.

They could not be trusted with a kind of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.” Folks wouldn’t work up to the capacity of their abilities, when the fruits of that capacity would not be theirs to enjoy.

We can learn something of vital importance in an age of increasing advocacy for communitarian social solutions.

Here’s Stossel’s assertion based on that early Thanksgiving object lesson:

What Plymouth suffered under communalism was what economists today call the tragedy of the commons. But 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."

When action is divorced from consequences, no one is happy with the ultimate outcome. 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 and will not be refilled -- a bad situation even for the earlier takers.

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.

Life is about consequences. Learning is mentally tying the appropriate consequence to individual actions. Prosperity and happiness, most often, results from altering behavior to elicit positive consequences and avoiding negative ones.

That’s an insight that can yield much for which to be thankful.

(Via Memeorandum)

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