Thursday, November 27, 2014

Did Private Property Save the Pilgrims?

 In honor of the holiday, we usually post an article about how private property saved the pilgrims. Benjamin Powell, an economist at Suffolk, gives a good version of the story here.  You can find the same tale on any number of more conservative websites (see here, here, and here).

This year we post a rebuttal:

Historians say that the settlers in Plymouth, and their supporters in England, did indeed agree to hold their property in common — William Bradford, the governor, referred to it in his writings as the “common course.” But the plan was in the interest of realizing a profit sooner, and was only intended for the short term; historians say the Pilgrims were more like shareholders in an early corporation than subjects of socialism.

“It was directed ultimately to private profit,” said Richard Pickering, a historian of early America and the deputy director of Plimoth Plantation, a museum devoted to keeping the Pilgrims’ story alive.

The arrangement did not produce famine. If it had, Bradford would not have declared the three days of sport and feasting in 1621 that became known as the first Thanksgiving. “The celebration would never have happened if the harvest was going to be less than enough to get them by,” Mr. Pickering said. “They would have saved it and rationed it to get by.”

The competing versions of the story note Bradford’s writings about “confusion and discontent” and accusations of “laziness” among the colonists. But Mr. Pickering said this grumbling had more to do with the fact that the Plymouth colony was bringing together settlers from all over England, at a time when most people never moved more than 10 miles from home. They spoke different dialects and had different methods of farming, and looked upon each other with great wariness.

Bill Fischel's take on the dispute rings true:

In Property in Land, Bob Ellickson pointed out that early settlers often adopted communal modes of production. He suggested that it was a strategy to deal with risk. Once risks are reduced by acquaintance with the new environment, they can adopt more conventional modes of production, including private property. So it could be that the story of starvation followed by prosperity is not simply a parable about private property. In an unknown environment, perhaps neither private nor communal property would have been all that productive, and communal was chosen in order to reduce the risk of starvation. Once that risk was reduced by acquaintance with the new environment, private property could be re-established in order to increase production.

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