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Were the Pilgrims socialist? Part I of this commentary set out to prove exactly that by providing something of an annotated chronology of relevant quotations from and links to Plymouth founder, Governor William Bradford. Besides my comprehensive post, you can visit the argument as it is most skillfully written here. ReasonTV has its own fun little explanatory video. You can also read two other good explanations here and here.

Or you could have the New York Times briefly explain the argument:

…the pilgrims who came to Plymouth established a communal system, where all had to pool whatever they hunted or grew on their lands. Because they could not reap the fruits of their labors, no one had any incentive to work, and the system failed — confusion, thievery and famine ensued.

Finally, the governor of the colony, William Bradford, abolished this system and gave each household a parcel of land. With private property to call their own, the Pilgrims were suddenly very industrious and found themselves with more corn than they knew what to do with. … the moral is always the same: socialism doesn’t work.

This is the general idea, though it might do for a little more context. After the Pilgrims landed in 1620, they developed a positive relationship with the Indians, which they celebrated in the fall of 1621 — the original “Thanksgiving,” although it was more of an autumnal harvest celebration. After several years of economic hardship, the spring of 1623 saw the abandonment of collective property and the institutionalization of private property, and that summer brought the first sustainably successful harvest, which would hold steady for at least another 24 years, according to a detailed account recorded by the Governor of the colony, William Bradford. The Pilgrims’ first real thanksgiving, a solemn day of prayer for God, occurred in July of 1623. Although our Thanksgivings take the same name, it is the 1621 fall festival that we mimic.

The Times article was written last year on November 20, 2010, in an attempt to debunk the free market story. Upon reading it last year, I resolved to do my own research before this year’s Thanksgiving and I have come down on the side of the free market explanation — with a few minor reservations — for all the reasons in the links above and in my Part I of this commentary. Here, in Part II, I will critique the New York Times article and offer the few reservations I have regarding the Pilgrims-free market argument.

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FOUR CLAIMS

NB: Most contentions in the Times article rely on the expertise of Richard Pickering, Deputy Director of a museum on the Pilgrims’ original site at Plymouth.

CLAIM #1: The article first concedes that the Pilgrims held their property communally, but that it was “directed ultimately to private profit.”

It is true that their contract with investors in London for their voyage’s funding is rightly considered a voluntary agreement, and a free market transaction. But a voluntary agreement to collectivize property does not make collective property any less collective. Whether citizens of the Soviet Union vote for collectivization voluntarily from below or whether it is imposed involuntarily from above, a community that collectivizes property is not one that respects private property.

The argument that communities fail when they collectivize property is not affected in the least by the means of collectivization.

CLAIM #2: The Times still uses this perspective to consider the Plymouth arrangement as a corporation, where “the Pilgrims were more like shareholders in an early corporation than subjects of socialism.” Although the point of the “Plymouth corporation” remains the same, I would suggest the analogy is clearer if the London investors were shareholders and the Pilgrims were employees. Still, several questions arise.

—Who are the managers of this corporation, with sovereignty over property? The London investors? The logistics of managerial control from London were near impossible. How about any of the settlers? As we have seen, no colonist had the legal power to make new property laws.

—Could the workers of this corporation be fired? Exiling the least industrious could have been an option, but according to Gov. Bradford, the absence of work ethic was not restricted to a lone segment of the Plymouth community. Rather, the entire colony “was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.” (Bradford, 121)

—Was there another corporation where discontented workers could apply for employment? If so, why did none of them abandon camp after half died the very first year? One of the important differences between a corporation and a sovereign community is that leaving a corporation is relatively easy.

There are plenty of ways to contrast corporations from the Pilgrim community, but one can also view standard governments generally as large corporations, whose shareholders are the taxpayer, whose employees are public sector workers, whose board of directors are elected officials, and whose managers are heads of bureaucracies. But if governments can be considered collectivist, government-corporations can be considered collectivist. And given that the Times considers the Plymouth community to be one such corporation-government, Plymouth can be considered collectivist, especially if they collectivize property, which they did. So we are back to the problem with Claim #1: how a community collectivizes its property does not change the fact that it collectivizes its property.

A last point on the Plymouth corporation. One of the stumbling blocks of corporations is when they venture into too many sectors and overstretch their resources. For example, General Electric (GE) was bailed out over fumbles in its financial loan department, rather than in innovative technology, which is was it is generally known for. According to Governor Bradford, the Plymouth corporation similarly bit off more than it could chew by collectivizing property; thanks to land privatization, he wrote, “much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use.” (120)

CLAIM #3: “The arrangement did not produce famine. If it had, Bradford would not have declared the three days of sport and feasting in 1621.” Pickering added, “if the harvest was going to be less than enough to get them by … they would have saved it and rationed it to get by.”

Not necessarily. Recall that half of the community had died in the year before the fall festival. They had also met local natives throughout the year, with whom they inked several peace treaties, opened mutually beneficial trade exchanges, and learned farming and fishing techniques. This positive relationship between the Pilgrims and natives was good cause for celebration after the year’s harvest. Ninety Wampanoags joined the Pilgrims for the festivities and the entire party worked diligently to maintain the substantial feast.

The 1621 festival is a great case study for when the profit motive is unnecessary for productivity. Rather, to be alive in Plymouth with such good friends as the local natives was, for the Pilgrims, a blessing, and celebrating this blessing was all the motive they needed to work hard for a handful of days.

But the celebratory motive cannot be the basis of an economy because celebrations only last so long. Without either celebrations or private profit to drive the Pilgrims’ industry before 1623, the community generally suffered from what Governor Bradford termed, a “time of wants.” (111) Far from hinting at economic vitality, the 1621 feast was an aberration.

CLAIM #4: “Bradford did get rid of the common course — but … not because the system wasn’t working. The Pilgrims just didn’t like it.”

I will let Governor Bradford speak for himself:

So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves … And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number, for that end, only for present use. (120)

In other words, their express purpose for land privatization was greater economic productivity, precisely because the old system wasn’t working.

Furthermore, whether or why they did not like the system is irrelevant. The question is whether or not land privatization did what the Pilgrims wanted it to do: release them from, “still thus languish[ing] in misery.” In the very next sentence, Governor Bradford explicitly believes so: “This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious.” (120) In fact, so successful was privatization, that by 1647 — 24 years later — Governor Bradford was able to write, “any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.” (132)

Another note on the Pilgrims’ motives. As Pickering points out, it is true that the Pilgrims did not appreciate working for other members of the collective: “they deemed it a kind of slavery.” Bradford similarly spoke of the condition as “great tyranny and oppression.” (120-121) Of course, if the Pilgrims liked working for other members of the collective, the move to private property would not have been necessary. But the Plymouth story acts as a cautionary tale precisely because workers did not get along under collectivization: the community “was found to breed much confusion and discontent” (121). Conversely, private property rights later “gave both sides good content” (132) when newcomers were able to voluntarily exchange their own possessions with individual Pilgrims, rather than with the communal whole.

Pickering here unwittingly makes perhaps the greatest argument for the free market: besides respecting individual liberty and spurring unrivalled productivity, the free enterprise system also makes people in an interconnected world much happier and more harmonious than they otherwise would be. No work explains this better than Leonard E. Read’s seminal 1958 story, “I, Pencil“, which tells the tale of the millions of people with millions of skills all over the world, who work together to create a single, simple pencil, without any individual or group of individuals directing their actions. Economist Milton Friedman opened his award-winning 1980 documentary series, Free to Choose, with his own short version of “I, Pencil.” Here, he speaks to Pickering’s concern for the Pilgrims’ animosity:

Literally thousands of people cooperated to make this pencil. People who don’t speak the same language, who practice different religions, who might hate one another if they ever met. … What brought them together and induced them to cooperate to make this pencil? … It was the magic of the price system. The impersonal operation of prices that brought them together and got them to cooperate to make this pencil, so that you could have it for a trifling sum. That is why the operation of the free market is so essential not only to promote productive efficiency, but even more to foster harmony and peace among the peoples of the world.

So it was with the Pilgrims of Plymouth.

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FURTHER CRITICISM?

Though the New York Times critique is ultimately a weak one, I can find two potential avenues of solid criticism for the free market story.

1. The most obvious is that correlation is not causation. Just because private property rights were instilled the very year the Pilgrims’ economic fortunes turned does not mean that private property rights turned those fortunes around.

Of course, free market thinkers will point to example after example of nations around the world and throughout history in which private property was similarly correlated with success and collectivized property was correlated with failure. Many of these examples are also clear cases in which, like the Pilgrims, private owners gained industriousness as soon as they owned their own capital.

Plymouth fits right into the context of this great historical tradition. However, Mr. Pickering offered a competing explanation: “The real reason agriculture became more profitable over the years, Mr. Pickering said, is that the Pilgrims were getting better at farming crops like corn that had been unknown to them in England.”

This is likely true. But it does not disprove the private property theory any more than the private property/economic success correlation proves its own causation. Perhaps credit goes to both. Further research might uncover which caused greater economic success: better farming technique, or the turn to private property. Unfortunately, the Times article sheds no light on this.

2. A second concern may be Governor William Bradford’s bias. Most of the information we have about the causes and consequences of the turn to privatization comes from his book, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, translated by Samuel Eliot Morison.

Did Bradford spin the truth at all? According to journalist Tom Bethell:

Among [Bradford's] books … was Jean Bodin’s Six Books of a Commonweale, a work that criticized [collective utopianism]. Bodin said that communal property was “the mother of contention and discord” and that a commonwealth based on it would perish because “nothing can be public where nothing is private.”

Yet more room for further research, however slim.

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APPENDICES

A. You may notice that half of the Times article deals with the story of Jamestown. I have indeed heard several arguments used to make Jamestown into a similar free market miracle, but I have chosen not to address it here because I remain unconvinced.

B. It is worth noting how the Times treats proponents of both sides of the argument.

Within the first few paragraphs, the free market side is immediately branded as partisan: “Tea Party”, “libertarian”, and “conservative.” This would not be a problem if the article also pointed out the partisan tilt of the opposing side rather than implying objectivity through omission. This suggests that the Times’ argument is mainstream thought among historians, struggling to hold the vanguard of truth against an onslaught of partisan revisionist historians who — as the Times mentions no fewer than four times without substantiation — can never keep their story straight.

On the other hand, the one and only perspective we have for the other side of the Plymouth tale is Mr. Richard Pickering, “a historian of early America and the deputy director of Plimoth Plantation, a museum devoted to keeping the Pilgrims’ story alive.” The Times does not indicate his political beliefs or the extent of his expertise, except by implication: he is involved in a Pilgrims museum. The rest of his biography informs us that he is a PhD candidate studying English and that he is a playwright, specializing in topics of 17th century American history. His specialty, therefore, in English and playwriting — though far from a vice — is not quite the specialty in Economics or History the casual reader is led to believe. Whether he is a conservative, libertarian, or liberal remains a mystery.

To add insult to injury, this doctoral candidate smartly pointed out that Governor William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, from which we have most of our information, may be burdened by the bias of anti-communist paranoia, because its compiler, Samuel Eliot Morison, originally titled the relevant chapter, “Indian Conspiracy; Communism; Gorges.” Furthermore, said Mr. Pickering, “The challenges of the cold war and dealing with Russia are reflected in the text.”

Perhaps if Morison were translating a book from someone who had not written in the English language, this would be a worthwhile criticism.

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Part 2 of this commentary, I critique a worthy rebuttal to the free market analysis and offer a few words [...]

  2. […] How Private Property Saved the Pilgrims THE PILGRIMS & CAPITALISM, PART I: What to Remember Every Thanksgiving THE PILGRIMS & CAPITALISM PART II: What to Remind Yourself Every Thanksgiving […]

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