In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I decided to share a bit of history about one of the first settlements in America, Plymouth Plantation. When I was younger my mental picture of the first Thanksgiving was pilgrims and native Americans sitting around a big table with lots of food, outside on a fall day. Things were not always as great, however, as I pictured them. When settlers first arrived at Plymouth, their first attempts to thrive were disastrous. At the beginning, they all shared, and worked for the common good, basically following the tenet, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. Everyone was expected to work in the fields planting and harvesting, and everyone got to share the final product. But under these conditions life was misery, and many people starved to death. They needed to come up with something quick, for the sake of survival. So what did they do to encourage a great boom in their tiny economy?
In his journal, published with the title “Of Plymouth Plantation” 1620-1647, Governor William Bradford writes about the dilemma, and the solution they found.
So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves.
They abandoned the supposedly utopian system of communal sharing, and decided that each person was now responsible for their own survival. Land was then given to families based on their numbers, and anyone who did not have their family in Plymouth was assigned to a household.
This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.
What happened was simple; now people knew they could count on no one other than themselves and their family for survival. They also knew that whatever excess they grew or manufactured would be to their own benefit. This got more people into the fields to work. No one was going to force women and children into the fields before, but now, worrying for the survival of her family, a mother would take her children into the fields with her to work. When the responsibility of survival was placed on their own shoulders, they could not rely on others’ labor. Likewise if they produced more than they needed, they would not be compelled to give it away and have their extra effort be of no benefit to them. When a person will receive the same ration, the same blankets, and the same treatment regardless of how much work is put in, it saps any motivation to go above and beyond. Innovation also increased the amount of goods one person could produce, when before, there would be little incentive to put in the work of streamlining production.
In his journal Bradford discusses what happened when the settlement shifted to every-man-for-himself. He laments the “vanity and conceit” of Plato and other philosophers’ claim:
…that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.
Essentially, when you get to keep what you work for, people work harder, and produce more. When people produce more than they can consume, this benefits others in the society who get to trade for the extra goods. This type of situation also leads to specialization in a particular field. When everything is not shared equally, if someone produces extra food, he can then trade it. Then if someone else produces extra cloth, she can trade that. People who are good at something, can market that skill in exchange for something which they are not good at producing. Before, both people might work to contribute cloth and food for the collective, but when they have something to gain from extra cloth and food, they will work harder to produce more in order to trade the excess. Again, this benefits everyone, as there are now more goods available—overall production has increased because there is more to be gained from working hard.
For the young men, that were most able and fit for labour and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice.
And rightfully so. Why should one person spend their time working to support others for no reward? When he is rewarded for his effort, it is justified that he works for “other men’s wives”, and as these pilgrims found out, it actually puts him in a better position to support others. Now he is not being worked to the bone with no more food than anyone else. He can now produce enough food for himself, and then trade the rest to others, who must find something marketable to exchange. The amount of work required however does not have to be equal. Since it is easier for him to harvest than a particular woman, but it is easier for her to sew, if he spends all his time harvesting, and she spends all her time sewing, more of each good will be created in the end. Again, the division of labor makes people more productive, and allowing them to keep the product of their labor has an even greater result. Since he doesn’t need extra food, and she doesn’t need extra clothes, trading facilitates using less energy to produce the same amount of goods.
And for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands well brook it.
Instead of being compelled to wash others’ clothes and dress others’ meat, it was now done in exchange for another good or service. They moved on from “slavery” to mutually beneficial transactions. Bradford adds that such was the experience of good standing, God fearing men, “And would have been worse if they had been men of another condition.”
This provides us a perfect microcosm of society to study, and see what encourages production, and what discourages it. On such a small scale it is easier to see that when you consume something you have not produced, you are taking that away from the producer. When society is set up to allow those conditions, there is less produced. When people are allowed to keep the products of their labor, more is produced, and all of society benefits. This also encourages innovation to create excess goods, which can be traded for the benefit of the producer, while also benefitting the other trader.
What the plantation started with a forceful economy, where people were compelled to work. They thought it was an unjust society, they lamented having to work for “others’ wives” or wives having to work for other men. Morale was down, and production was down, since there was no benefit to working harder. People starved to death, because of the lack of necessities grown and produced.
When Plymouth Plantation implemented an economy absent of force where individuals got to keep the product of their labor and trade through mutually beneficial transactions, more was produced. People were also happier, as they had solved the problems of starvation. No one felt enslaved, instead they felt empowered. They could go as far as their brain and hard work would take them, which obviously encourages productive and innovative activity. Everyone developed the attitude that, the more excess goods created, the more I can trade for, and the better quality of life I will have. And even the people in Plymouth who could not support themselves benefited, because now there were enough excess goods to go around.
This Thanksgiving I am thankful for the human ability to reason, and solve problems. In an advanced economy we can sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture, but as long as we have history to learn from, there is no excuse for trying the same failed policies, and repeating history.