As we sit down this week and give thanks for the many blessings of this life, we should also take time to reflect on a Thanksgiving lesson, brought to us courtesy of Governor William Bradford of the Plymouth Colony. Although the Pilgrims landed on that lonely outcropping of Massachusetts shoreland almost 400 years ago, their communist experiment didn’t work then and, as much as some of our esteemed political leaders want us to believe otherwise, it won’t work now.
That’s right, the Pilgrims were communists, according to some. At least, they started off that way. There was no private property, women did chores for everyone, not only their own families, and the men planted, grew and harvested the food that was grown and equally distributed among all the colonists. However, three years into this imagined economic utopia, or “the common course and condition,” as they called it, the colonists found themselves on the brink of starvation, barely producing enough food to keep everyone alive.
Aware that supplies from the mother country were few and far between at best, a desperate Governor Bradford convened his wisest compatriots and, after much debate, made a fateful decision that would profoundly change the way Americans would ever thereafter view themselves. His insightful pronouncement? Self-determination.
Each family was assigned a parcel of land, proportionate to the number of family members. And what do you know – as the governor’s very detailed diaries noted, “This had very good success, for it made all hands industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means… 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.” (Stop me if any of this is sounding vaguely familiar.)
Communism could perhaps work if we were all perfect, but basically we are by nature corrupt. In fact, Governor Bradford went on to articulate the reasons the communal system failed among their “godly and sober men.” Their community was permeated by an unwillingness to work; by loss of mutual respect; by confusion and discontent; by resentment of treating the unproductive the same as the productive; and by a prevailing sense of slavery and injustice. And this in a very religious community in which drunkenness was almost unheard of and gluttony and laziness were considered sins (yes, the word “sin” actually meant something to them) — much different from our current society.
As Governor Bradford also discovered, no society can survive with a husband growing food for other people’s families and wives and children doing chores for other people’s families, all at the expense of their own. Communism undermines the basic societal foundational building block — the family unit.
Taking on the free riders who took advantage of those pulling more than their fair share, he privatized property, which brought “very good success.” He observed that the colonists immediately became personally responsible for their own actions rather than those of the whole community. They were incentivized to work harder because the fruits of their labor would go directly to them and their dependents. No work, no food.
We can study the continued fallout from the communist experiment of the former Soviet Union, but really all we need to do is look back 400 years at our own American ancestors to understand that communism, “the common course and condition,” wealth redistribution or whatever name you might want to give it, simply doesn’t work. Encouraging and rewarding sloth, laziness and inefficiency while destroying individual initiative portends certain disaster. The liberty of self-determination and free market forces, however imperfect, will win every time.