Thursday, November 19, 2009

The First Thanksgiving: A Lesson in Free Market Agriculture

The first Thanksgiving story provides an interesting lesson in agricultural economics. Foremost, the celebration was about thanking God for the abundance. However, an important aspect is what resulted from a move away from a socialist or common property model of organizing and allocating resources (imposed on them by the Colony’s Sponsors) to a system of private property rights.

As governor William Bradford commented on the dreadful conditions of 1622:

“The experience that was had … 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 was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men, that were most able and fit for labor 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… 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."

In 1623, they embraced the incentives of private property and capitalism:

“They had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. 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…By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine, now God gave them plenty, and the faces of things were changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many, for which they blessed God.”

The first Thanksgiving was a great example of agricultural productivity, given the proper incentives.

The source for these excerpts can be found at the Foundation for Economic Education here.


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eeldip said...

although another lesson you can draw from the first thanksgiving is that it was the beginning of the MYTH of independence and self sufficiency in america.

the colony was essentially fully dependent on the goodwill of local indian tribes who were providing the colonists with a significant proportion of their diet during lean times. they would have starved if it wasn't for "handouts".

that document you cited is merely an indication of cultural ideals- not economic reality.

AgEconomist said...

Even if we credit the 'handouts' you are talking about, the economic lesson still stands. It is evident that even with the 'handouts',they did nearly starve because of the way they chose to allocate them via a 'commons' arrangement. It was only after they adopted a system of private property were they able to product the abundance necessary to survive. No amount of handouts would have sustained them. Private property allowed them to solve the 'calculation' problem that has plagued every socialist system ever contrived. Even the Native Americans in that region were cognizant of this, having well established property rights to their hunting grounds. This economic reality transends all cultural ideas.

See also: Toward A Theory of Property Rights. Howard Demsetz. American Economic Reveiew ( 1968)


The Mystery of Capital by Hernando DeSoto