The Economics of the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving

I bet you didn’t learn this in gradeschool – the Pilgrims’ food shortages were caused by bad economic incentives (from Café Hayek). Here is a quote from Governor William Bradford’s history: “For this community [of property] (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. 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, or man of parts, had no more in the division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labors, and victuals, and clothes, etc., with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignity and disrespect unto them. 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 to be a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands brook it well.”

There is a similar book along these lines, Puritan Economic Experiments, by Gary North. From the back cover: “When the Puritans got off the Arabella and waded ashore to Massachusetts in 1630, they carried a heavy intellectual burden with them: five hundred years of accumulated unsound economic doctrines. This system of thought is today called scholastic economics. Actually, the later Spanish scholastic economists who were contemporaries of the Puritans had adopted free market views, but he Puritans had never heard of them. So, a series of disastrous economic experiments began in New England.

“The Pilgrims had been compelled by prior contract to set up a basically socialist system in 1620 – the common storehouse – and had come very close to starving as a result. They dropped this practice within two years, long before the arrival of their neighbors, the Puritans. The Puritans did not make the same mistake. But they made others: extensive publicly owned lands for grazing, controls on who was allowed to buy and sell land, price and wage controls, quality controls, public guilds and monopolies, and controls on people’s fashions. They learned first-hand what government controls produce: conflict and shortages.

“For almost half a century, the Puritans ran the experiment. They served as willing guinea pigs. Eventually, they learned. Anyway, their children learned. In 1675, the great Indian war broke out – King Philip’s War. The politicians tightened controls on the economy, and it began to break down. By the time the war was over a year later, the Puritans had learned their lesson. They abolished economic controls for good, and the economy boomed.

“This is the story of nearly half a century of Puritan experiments with government controls, all in the name of Christian ethics, and why those experiments were finally abandoned as a failure. The Puritans learned from experience. Not until the American Revolution broke out a century later did American colonists again attempt to impose a comparable system of economic controls, and the result of those controls was the near-starvation of Washington’s army at Valley Forge in 1777. Similar experiment – similar result.”

The Farmer


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