A Capitalist Thanksgiving

In his most famous Federalist paper, Federalist 10, James Madison wrote that what motivated human behavior was “self interest,” and for any government to succeed it must recognize that fact and adapt accordingly.

He could have looked to his forebears for confirmation.  Indeed, as we celebrate this Thanksgiving we should recall the story of our First Thanksgiving in which Pilgrims and neighboring Indians celebrated together in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

As is well known, that Thanksgiving in 1621, which was a relatively meager one, probably would not have occurred at all had it not been for the help of the Indians, especially the Indian Squanto, who had learned English as a slave in Europe and helped teach the colonists how to grow corn and other native foodstuffs.

Less well known is that the main reason the 1621 harvest was so meager is that the Pilgrims were … for lack of a better word … Communists.

Under the rules of the Pilgrim community in 1621 all farming was collective.  That is, individuals were not permitted to own a plot of farmland or reserve for themselves the fruits of their labor.  All food was grown communally and distributed equally, regardless of how much work an individual put into growing the crops.  The result was, as it has been throughout history, inequality, resentment, reduced incentive and effort, and bad results.

This caused one of the Pilgrims’ leaders, William Bradford, to have an epiphany.  Bradford had originally thought that, as he wrote in his diary, “the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them (the Pilgrims) happy and flourishing.”  He soon realized the opposite was true, and in 1623 Pilgrim leaders allotted private land plots to individuals and told them that if they didn’t work their land they wouldn’t eat.

The result?  Again according to Bradford, “This had very good success, for it made all hands industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any other means … ”

Bradford noted that, whereas the previous communal arrangement did “breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort,” under the new economic system, everyone now “went willingly into the field,” including women and children, and the harvest increased significantly.

What James Madison understood in 1788, the Pilgrims understood 167 years earlier.  When people are allowed to act in “self interest,” to enjoy the fruits of their labor, they labor harder.

Something to think about — and be thankful for — as we sit down to enjoy the turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie and more that we labored to put on our tables this Thanksgiving.