PropertyProf Blog

Editor: Stephen Clowney
Univ. of Arkansas, Fayetteville

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Thursday, November 25, 2010

How Private Property Saved the Pilgrims

Happy Thanksgiving!  This is surely the greatest of all holidays - (nearly) everyone celebrates, and it centers on family, eating, and shopping.  Now, unlike Ben, I think Turkey is pretty gross --  well, not gross but utterly and completely tasteless.  There's a reason no one can agree on how to cook a turkey (Deep fry it? Cut it in half? Cover it in herbs?).  That's because no one has ever figured out how to make that bird taste like anything good.  So, I announce publicly and proudly, that I prefer chicken on Thanksgiving. 

Also, in honor of the holiday, it's fun to recap the argument that private property saved the pilgrims. Benjamin Powell, an economist at Suffolk, tells 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. . . . 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, but now they alone were responsible for feeding themselves. This change, [the Pilgrims recorded], 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 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.

This is a yarn that makes the property-lizard part of my brain start tingling.  However, it doesn't really explain how the Indians managed to survive here for thousands and thousands of years.

Again, happy chicken day.

Steve Clowney

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