The Real Lesson from the First Thanksgiving

John Stossel takes a closer look at the events leading up to the first Thanksgiving, and highlights a little detail of history that I was not aware of. I doubt most Americans in this “gimme” age know about it either.

When the Pilgrims first settled the Plymouth colony, they organized their farm economy along communal lines. The goal was to share everything equally, work and produce.

They nearly all starved.

Why? When people can get the same return with a small amount of effort as with a large amount, most people will make little effort. Plymouth settlers faked illness rather than working the common property. Some even stole, despite their Puritan convictions. Total production was too meager to support the population, and famine resulted. Some ate rats, dogs, horses and cats. This went on for two years.

It wasn’t until the leadership changed their economic model from socialism to private farming that the colony suddenly found prosperity. It was the bounty of the first harvest under this new system that the Pilgrims celebrated in that original Thanksgiving.

Stossel draws the obvious lesson:

What private property does — as the Pilgrims discovered — is connect effort to reward, creating an incentive for people to produce far more. Then, if there’s a free market, people will trade their surpluses to others for the things they lack. Mutual exchange for mutual benefit makes the community richer.

Secure property rights are the key. When producers know that their future products are safe from confiscation, they will take risks and invest. But when they fear they will be deprived of the fruits of their labor, they will do as little as possible.

That’s the lost lesson of Thanksgiving.

It’s a lesson that Americans today need to learn all over again, as we flirt with the idea of turning more and more of our output and welfare over to a nanny government that promises everything.


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