November 22, 2012

FROM THE THANKSGIVING ARCHIVES: "GODLY AND SOBER", BUT NOT SUCKERS

How Private Property Saved the Pilgrims: When the Pilgrims landed in 1620, they established a system of communal property. Within three years they had scrapped it, instituting private property instead. (Tom Bethell, Winter 1999, Hoover Digest)
Having tried what Bradford called the "common course and condition"-the communal stewardship of the land demanded of them by their investors-Bradford reports that the community was afflicted by an unwillingness to work, by confusion and discontent, by a loss of mutual respect, and by a prevailing sense of slavery and injustice. And this among "godly and sober men." In short, the experiment was a failure that was endangering the health of the colony.

Historian George Langdon argues that the condition of early Plymouth was not "communism" but "an extreme form of exploitative capitalism in which all the fruits of men's labor were shipped across the seas." In this he echoes Samuel Eliot Morison, who claims that "it was not communism . . . but a very degrading and onerous slavery to the English capitalists that was somewhat softened." Notice that this does not agree with the dissension that Bradford reports, however. It was between the colonists themselves that the conflicts arose, not between the colonists and the investors in London. Morison and Langdon conflate two separate problems. On the one hand, it is true that the colonists did feel "exploited" by the investors because they were eventually expected to surrender to them an undue portion of the wealth they were trying to create. It is as though they felt that they were being "taxed" too highly by their investors-at a 50 percent rate, in fact.

But there was another problem, separate from the ?tax? burden. Bradford?s comments make it clear that common ownership demoralized the community far more than the tax. It was not Pilgrims laboring for investors that caused so much distress but Pilgrims laboring for other Pilgrims. Common property gave rise to internecine conflicts that were much more serious than the transatlantic ones. The industrious (in Plymouth) were forced to subsidize the slackers (in Plymouth). The strong "had no more in division of victuals and clothes" than the weak. The older men felt it disrespectful to be "equalized in labours" with the younger men.

This suggests that a form of communism was practiced at Plymouth in 1621 and 1622. No doubt this equalization of tasks was thought (at first) the only fair way to solve the problem of who should do what work in a community where there was to be no individual property: If everyone were to end up with an equal share of the property at the end of seven years, everyone should presumably do the same work throughout those seven years. The problem that inevitably arose was the formidable one of policing this division of labor: How to deal with those who did not pull their weight?

The Pilgrims had encountered the free-rider problem. Under the arrangement of communal property one might reasonably suspect that any additional effort might merely substitute for the lack of industry of others. And these "others" might well be able-bodied, too, but content to take advantage of the communal ownership by contributing less than their fair share. As we shall see, it is difficult to solve this problem without dividing property into individual or family-sized units. And this was the course of action that William Bradford wisely took.

It's damned annoying that Thomas Jefferson substituted that pabulumistic phrase, "pursuit of happiness", for "property". (originally posted: 8/26/03)
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Posted by at November 22, 2012 12:03 AM
  
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