Plymouth, private property and human nature

Another Thanksgiving has come and gone, and with it a handful of articles asserting that what ultimately saved the Plymouth Colony from failure was its willingness to embrace private-property rights.

The Café Hayek blog, however, is one of the few that actually makes an effort to identify the source behind that idea.

George Mason University professor Don Boudreaux uses as his source information taken from the Massachusetts Historical Society’s 1912 edition of William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation:

To finance their voyage, the Pilgrims formed a joint stock company with London investors. At the investors’ insistence, the settlers agreed to pool output, land, capital, and profits during their first seven years abroad. From this “common stock,” residents of the colony were to receive food and other necessities, and at the end of the seven-year period, the land and other assets were to be “equally divided betwixt” the investors and the settlers. The colonists initially complied with the spirit of this contract. Although they planted household gardens almost from the start, they collectivized initial field and livestock operations. The setters had some agricultural successes, but they were unable to grow corn in their common field. Within six months of reaching Plymouth, almost one-half of the population had perished from disease.

The colony was founded in late 1620, but by 1624 the Plymouth colonists had deviated from investors’ plans and assigned each family from one to 10 acres, depending on the number of family members, according to Boudreaux.

This greatly increased productivity, Bradford wrote (in prose that makes one grateful for the subsequent standardization of the English language);

[Parcelization] had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corne was planted then other waise. . . . The women now wente willingly into the field, and tooke their little-ones with them to set corne, which before would aledg weaknes and inabilitie; whome to have compelled would have bene thought great tiranie and oppression.

By converting the land to private property, the colonists immediately became responsible for their own actions (and those of their immediate families), not for the actions of the whole community, writes Tom Bethell of the Hoover Institution.

“The system became self-policing. Knowing that the fruits of his labor would benefit his own family and dependents, the head of each household was given an incentive to work harder,” Bethell added. “He could know that his additional efforts would help specific people who depended on him. In short, the division of property established a proportion or ‘ratio’ between act and consequence. Human action is deprived of rationality without it, and work will decline sharply as a result.”

Different people will take different things away from the experience of Plymouth Colony:

  • Some will argue that man is inherently selfish and will always look out for himself – or his family – first, to the detriment of the greater good of the community;
  • Some will maintain that collectivization provides insufficient motivation, as many individuals will balk if they believe a workload is disproportionately spread among the population, particularly in proportion to the parceling out of rewards;
  • And some will say that the experience of the Plymouth Colony underscores the need for personal incentives inherent in private property, as individuals consistently perform better when they’re able to reap the rewards of their own labor.

All of the above are likely correct.

Of course, Thanksgiving celebrations often overlook the big losers in the Plymouth Colony experiment – Native Americans.

Within a little more than a half century, some 80 percent of Native Americans in Southern New England had been eradicated, either killed, driven away or enslaved, according to Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2007 work Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War.

So one can understand if descendants of the Nipmucks, Narragansett, Niantics and other New England tribes don’t feel much like giving thanks around this time of year.

(Above: The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, Jennie A. Brownscombe, 1914. Credit: Wikipedia.)

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