Property Rights

Thankful for Property Rights on Thanksgiving Day

Private property became the foundation for building the most prosperous nation in the history of the world.


Ready for Thanksgiving? Before you eat that turkey, I hope you think about why America has turkeys for you to eat. Most people don't know.

Everyone's heard about that first Thanksgiving feast—Pilgrims and Indians sharing the harvest. We like the drawings of it we saw in schoolbooks—shared bounty.

Fewer people know that before that first feast, the Pilgrims nearly starved.

They almost starved because they acted the way some Bernie Sanders fans want people to act. They farmed collectively.

But communal farming creates what economists call "the tragedy of the commons."

Think about what happens if a bunch of ranchers hold land in common. Everyone brings cattle to graze. While that sounds nice, it also means every rancher has an incentive to bring lots of cattle to the pasture. They bring cow after cow until the pasture is overgrazed—destroyed.

For this week's YouTube video, I repeated an experiment economics teachers sometimes do to demonstrate the tragedy of the commons.

I assembled a group of people, put coins on the floor in front of them and said, "I'll give you a dollar for each coin you pick up. But if you leave them down there for a minute, I'll give you two bucks per coin, and then three bucks. Each minute the coins increase in value by a dollar."

If the group waited, they'd make more money.

Did they wait? No.

As soon as I said "Go!" everyone frantically grabbed for coins. No one wanted to wait because someone else would have gotten the money.

Collective action makes people more greedy and short-sighted, not less.

Then I changed the rules of the game. I divided the floor into segments, so each person had his or her own property. Then we played the game again.

This time there was no coin-grabbing frenzy. Now patient people anticipated the future.

"I want to reap the most benefit," said one. "[On the previous test] I wanted it now, whereas this is going up, and it's mine."

Exactly. When you own property, you want to preserve it, to allow it to keep producing good things.

That beneficial pattern disappears under collectivism, even if the collectivists are nice people. The Pilgrims started out sharing their land. When crops were ready to harvest, they behaved like the people in my experiment.

Some Pilgrims sneaked out at night and grabbed extra food. Some picked corn before it was fully ready. The result?

"By the spring," Pilgrim leader William Bradford wrote in his diary, "our food stores were used up and people grew weak and thin. Some swelled with hunger."

Adding to the problem, when people share the results of your work, some don't work hard. The chance to take advantage of others' joint labor is too tempting. Teenage Pilgrims were especially likely to steal the commune's crops.

Had the Pilgrims continued communal farming, this Thursday might be known as "Starvation Day" instead of Thanksgiving.

Fortunately, the Pilgrims were led not by Bernie Sanders fans or other commons-loving socialists, but by Bradford, who wrote that he "began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could… that they might not still thus languish in misery… After much debate [I] assigned each family a parcel of land… This had very good success, because it made every hand industrious."

There's nothing like private ownership to make "every hand industrious."

The Pilgrims never returned to shared planting. Owning plots of land allowed them to prosper and have feasts like the ones we'll have Thursday.

Private property became the foundation for building the most prosperous nation in the history of the world, a place where people have individual rights instead of group plans forced on everyone.

When an entire economy is based on collectivism, like the Soviet Union was, it eventually collapses from inefficiency and misuse of resources.

So this Thanksgiving, thank private property. Every day, it protects us from the tragedy of the commons.


NEXT: When Good-Faith Medicine Raises 'Red Flags'

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  1. “Then I changed the rules of the game. I divided the floor into segments, so each person had his or her own property.”

    Typical right-wing provocateur. Always sowing the seeds of division.

    1. I bet he even gave smaller floor segments to the test subjects of color – just because.

      1. +3/5

        1. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

          This is what I do…

          1. TROLL ALERT. Respond and you may be sorry!

            1. I believe the correct term is “bot”.

      2. The women only got $0.77 for every coin their male partners picked up but were free to allege criminal sexual allegations against Stossel and topple the whole system.

    2. I bet he didn’t even earmark subsidies to compensate for the binary gender discrimination inherent in his little game.

    3. He could have made the story/game about large-scale corporate/absentee/investor ownership of land vs incentivized yeoman middle-class ownership of land. That would have been historically accurate too since that’s what actually was happening.

      From Hoover Institute –

      But ain’t nothing so universal as forcing dead people to serve today’s political agendas. Even Hoover gets the facts right but can’t resist the phraseology of todays politics

  2. It used to confuse me why they post a Stossel video, than a day later post a text of the video as a separate article. Looking at the inset image I realize that it’s all a damn excuse for Stossel to show off that he owns a lot of funny hats.

    1. And you don’t go around showing off your funny hats? What are you? Some kind of a weirdo?

    2. Just be thankful you live in a land where you can write about seeing someone making multiple posts to show off his funny hats.

    3. “… excuse for Stossel to show off that he owns a lot of funny hats.”

      (in the voice of Bernie Sanders): No one needs more than one hat.

      1. Also, he didn’t build that hat.

    4. Hat are a metaphor for privilege, which is of course why he has so many of them.

  3. How did the communally dwelling Indians manage to get hold of turkeys to give the starving pilgrims? I guess they hadn’t heard of the tragedy of the commons.

    1. I thought the whole story was a fable anyway.

    2. Due to smallpox, influenza and other diseases of Old World origin, native american populations had been decimated, thus allowing for an increase in the population of the animals they hunted. RE: Predator/Prey relationship.

      1. “thus allowing for an increase in the population of the animals”

        Strange that the starving pilgrims hadn’t noticed this miraculous increase in the food supply. Guess they were too busy scrounging off the collectivist Indians.

        1. The native population had already crashed before the Pilgrims arrived. “Decimation” is a mild descriptor of hiw much of the Indian population had actually perished.

          1. Not even remotely true. The Indians told the white man for 200 years…you have nothing we need.

    3. They learned after wiping out the woolly mammoths.

    4. “…communally dwelling Indians…”? Not only did some tribes have private property they did not allow democracy, mob rule. If an action or policy was up for a vote, it had to pass unanimously. If not, the “nay” voters were not bound by the majority. They respected the individual’s right to exercise decent. This allowed for experimentation. The best idea would win out if everyone was free. No one was forced to obey the public will which allowed for competition of ideas. Competition exposed the best and those who learned from observation benefited. Those whose mind was made up and remained willfully blind suffered. This was social justice. It was also the only sane way to live.

      We could learn like our native Americans if we allowed competition in garbage service, utility service, firehouses, policing, communication (no monopoly cable service), and foreign defense. Monopoly kills innovation.

  4. Are you ready for the worse segue ever?

    Speaking of property rights…

    The states of California and Pennsylvania go to court to take away conscience exemptions from people like the Little Sisters of the Poor.

    It would be an amusing exercise if the media contacted swing-state Democrats and asked if they approve of this latest attack on the religious freedom of nuns. Make the “moderate” Democrats squirm.

    1. Isn’t it great how socialism encourages us to drag everyone and their beliefs through the mud?

      1. We are all equal. So we need to start acting like it. Praise conformity!

    2. Aside from openly conservative media outlets, exactly which media are going to do something to make Democrats squirm?

      1. Of late it’s been the tabloids, but their schtick is sex not philosophy (how un-sexy!)

  5. They Atlantic weighs in on the religious-freedom story above.

    They try for a resigned, above-it-all, plague-o’-both-your-houses approach, which is significant in itself because one might expect them to be on the anti-Trump, #WarOnWomen bandwagon. The article also has this skeptical passage: “Between the two of them, the new lawsuits throw out a kitchen-sink’s worth of legal objections to the new Trump administration rules…”

  6. “The Tragedy of the Commons” was my nickname in college.

  7. Ironically, another Indian is saving us from a similar communal scheme: net neutrality.

    1. We should preserve him. On a reservation, or something.

    2. I’d rather carve his bust into a mountain – piss off the ‘mine mine mine’ Internet trolls and the environazis.

      #???? ?????

  8. This is a good parable, but without basis in the history of Plymouth Colony. Arriving in Provincetown on Nov. 20, 1620, the colonists spent the winter of 1620-21 on the ship and in the few shelters they were able to build in Plymouth. They subsisted on the largely spoiled remaining supplies on the Mayflower and whatever they could catch. That winter almost half of them died. By the following November, William Bradford was able to write: “They begane now to gather in ye small harvest they had, and to fitte up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health & strenght, and had all things in good plenty; fFor as some were thus imployed in affairs abroad, others were excersised in fishing, aboute codd, & bass, & other fish, of which yey tooke good store, of which every family had their portion. All ye somer ther was no want. And now begane to come in store of foule, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besids water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they tooke many, besids venison, &c. Besids, they had about a peck a meale a weeke to a person, or now since harvest, Indean corn to yt proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largly of their plenty hear to their freinds in England, which were not fained, but true reports.”

    1. The Pilgrim spell checker must have been one of the first to starve.

      1. Starved early and was eaten too. The Pilgrims forgot to bring enough o’s as well – which is why they spoke about the Dinner Party – which morphed into Thanksgiving – rather than the Donner Party which would repulsed future settlers.

    2. This is a strange comment. I have read a completely different transcript from Bradford’s record. My first memory was of it goes back to the early seventies in a pub called “The Gold Bug” written by Howard S. Katz. He went to the original document. He used to live just outside Plymouth. Over the decades, I have read numerous collaborating pieces, one at Reason. All support Stossel.

      American Liberal’s account is the first contradictory report I know of.

      1. This is the actual event as described by Edward Winslow in a Dec 1621 letter sent back on the Fortune supply ship – and then published as Mourt’s Relation in London in 1622.

        our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

        the Bradford section confirms the same timeframe but doesn’t mention the Massassoit visit

        1. The division of land – one acre of land per person assigned to families – happened in 1623 – when the overseas investors/shareholders of Plymouth Company ceased to be active and thus de facto allowed the Pilgrims to do what they had always intended to do before they had signed the seven year ‘indenture’ agreement in 1620.

  9. Communal living/farming has been tried and failed every time, everywhere. But the theory won’t die. Or, I should say, it dies and comes back like a zombie, but with less appeal to the independent mind. Freethinkers do not tolerate freeloaders. The collective political theory is called socialism. It takes two forms, both authoritarian, which is necessary for implementation. It can’t stand comparison with individualism, so that is not allowed.

    In Communist China and Russia, the farms were collectivized. Both have abandoned it. Both corrections started at a grass-roots level and were fought at the top. TPTB hate to give up control, no matter the consequences. They would rather “represent” a starving, collapsing economy than give renounce regulation. See the US Empire for more of the same.

    1. Sorry, which parts of our “Empire” do we collect tribute from? Or are you speaking metaphorically of the Fed vs the States and People? In which case you’re correct.

  10. Mr. Stossel is correct – collectivism invites freeloading off of the “commons.” You’d think uber-liberal Thom Hartmann would realize that, yet he’s still a hard-core Neo-Socialist, sometimes spouting his idiocy over on RT-TV.

    Private property works. Ownership is what motivates success and maintenance of a higher living standard for all.

  11. Nobody ever owns anything. Especially “property”. After paying a mortgage for 30 years, you would think you “own” that property that fancy house sits on. OH NO YOU DON’T. There’s an illegal “fee”, or “rent” on that property you think you own. And your local “government” gets to put a value on YOUR property, to decide how much “rent” you owe.
    Similar deal for YOUR car. The US government doesn’t understand that once a “tax” has been paid on something, they can’t “tax” it again. That’s called extortion. Because if you don’t pay they take it BY FORCE.

  12. Property rights? Didn’t we take the land from the Indians & murder them? What goes around, comes around. The “invisible ” government took away your property rights long ago. Anyone know what an alloidal or fee simple title is? We once had these. How is being listed on your title as “joint tenant” or “tenant in common” make you an owner? Anyone know the definition of a tenant? Don’t pay your property taxes & see what happens. The true owners will get your property. This article is misleading as it omits the truth of the matter. Don’t expect any help from the legal system. They’re another exclusive group with more rights than you too. Does anyone really think that they want to inform the People? The only way we can restore anything is to remove all these special interests that have supplanted our Constitutional government. You’d better believe they know what has happened. That’s why they do nothing to benefit us when they get elected. They have to grovel in front of our rulers for a spot on their side.

  13. The same principles of private property ownership also apply to self ownership. Laws that place limits on how o me may dispose of one’s own person destroy self-respect and, thus, mutual respect. It has already happened from the effects of welfarism and prohibitionist laws.

  14. Where do you get this bullshit ? If the local leaders didn’t GIVE, yes GIVE acres of land to every adult male, America may have never come about. Pretty easy for those oh so sacred ‘free market’ private property pilgrims to GIVE settlers INDIAN land they stole by force.

    The Pilgrims were about to starve because of greed by a few. Leave it to the typical American greedy capitalist scum to come up with a rationale for the sanctity of property rights when one can steal the property and give to the white people to protect them from their own greed.

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