Thanksgiving Offers Lessons on Capitalism

As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow, it is time again to revisit a key lesson we can take away from the origins of this holiday tradition.

This Foundation for Economic Education article is well worth the read if you are not familiar with why capitalism and property rights play such a vital role in the survival of the pilgrims.

In the first few years, the settlers established a system devoted to the “common good,” a notion still so strongly advocated for today by liberals and statists. Individual ownership of land was not recognized, and indeed the pilgrims set up a system free and clear of the evil profit motive and greedy capitalists. Sounds like the progressive utopia.  The results?

“For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men that were most 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, with out any recompense.

One half of the crew of the Mayflower, including “many of their officers and lustiest men, as the boatson, gunner, three quartermasters, the cook, and others,” also perished before the little vessel set sail on her return voyage to England in April 1621.

By putting “people before profits,” the pilgrims suffered extreme levels of famine and death.

After a few years of suffering, the pilgrims decided to try a different form of economic organization.

“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 Gov. (with the advice of the chiefest amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular [private use], and in that regard trust to themselves”

In short, they made greedy capitalists out of the pilgrims. The result?

This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Gov. or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content.

“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 particular [private] planting was well seen, for all had, one way and 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 has not been among them since to this day.”

The lessons to be learned from this are timeless, and we should give thanks that we at least still have remnants of a capitalist system based on private property and voluntary exchange. But we need to be ever vigilant in defending (what’s left of) our economic liberty and fighting to reclaim liberty lost.