How private property rights helped save the Pilgrims

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Today is Thanksgiving, and there is much to be thankful. One lesson of the holiday that we should try not to forget is how the Pilgrims were saved from starvation and misery by adopting a system of private property rights. Economist Benjamin Powell summarizes the story here:

Many people believe that after suffering through a severe winter, the Pilgrims' food shortages were resolved the following spring when the Native Americans taught them to plant corn and a Thanksgiving celebration resulted. In fact, the pilgrims continued to face chronic food shortages for three years until the harvest of 1623. Bad weather or lack of farming knowledge did not cause the pilgrims' shortages. Bad economic incentives did.

In 1620 Plymouth Plantation was founded with a system of communal property rights. Food and supplies were held in common and then distributed based on equality and need as determined by Plantation officials. People received the same rations whether or not they contributed to producing the food, and residents were forbidden from producing their own food. Governor William Bradford, in his 1647 history, Of Plymouth Plantation, wrote that this system was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. The problem was that "young men, that were most able and fit for labour, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men's wives and children without any recompense." Because of the poor incentives, little food was produced.

Faced with potential starvation in the spring of 1623, the colony decided to implement a new economic system. Every family was assigned a private parcel of land. They could then keep all they grew for themselves….

This change, Bradford wrote, had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. Giving people economic incentives changed their behavior….

Once the Pilgrims in the Plymouth Plantation abandoned their communal economic system and adopted one with greater individual property rights, they never again faced the starvation and food shortages of the first three years.

For a more detailed account of the Pilgrims' transition to private property, see here. In my 2010 post on this subject, I explained why the lessons of the Pilgrims' experience with property rights are in no way vitiated by the fact that the Plymouth Plantation was a corporation.

This may also be a good time to reject the persistent myth that Native Americans didn't value (or perhaps even know about) property rights in land until Europeans arrived and foisted this concept on them. In reality, many native peoples made extensive use of property rights long before whites arrived, even though they obviously did not use the same legal terminology as Europeans did. The myth that Native Americans had no property rights was first developed by 18th and 19th century whites as a justification for dispossessing Indians of their land on the grounds that they didn't really own it. In the 20th century, the idea was taken up by some left-wing environmentalists and others in order to show that Native Americans had a supposedly superior collectivist ethic that whites should imitate.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

NOTE: This post is adapted from my previous post on this subject last year.