Capitalist Lesson from First Thanksgiving; Collectivism Was Nearly the Undoing of the Pilgrims

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Despite our current perilous times, Americans still have boundless reasons for giving thanks. True, our economy continues to falter, we face yet another national credit downgrade, and families suffer with high unemployment. The nation teeters precariously between free-market capitalism and European-style socialism. But fortunately, we have guidance from those brave Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower who, nearly four centuries ago, faced a choice similar to ours.

Our modern Thanksgiving celebration and, in fact, the very prosperity that engenders it, are a testament to the difficult lessons those beleaguered Pilgrims learned. Today, we peddle sanitized, cartoonish versions of Thanksgiving to our children as we focus on feasts and football, Christmas purchases and parades. We may be genuinely thankful for the fruits before us, but do we really understand the labors that produced them? As we look around an impoverished globe, we should ask ourselves what exactly it was that those prior generations did that made America the most prosperous nation in history. What lessons can we learn from those Pilgrims?

Among the 102 settlers on the Mayflower were the 40 Pilgrims led by James Carver, the first governor of Plymouth. Those English separatists were ill-prepared for the hideous and desolate wilderness, as William Bradford would later describe it. Carver died within a month of arriving, leaving Bradford in charge. Bradford's own wife died before even disembarking from the ship, some believe by suicide, given their despair. Fully half the Pilgrims died in the first harsh winter, sometimes two or three a day.

We teach our children that the American Indians, mercifully, came to the Pilgrims' rescue, which formed the basis for our holiday. That's indeed true, noble and worthy of celebration. But Bradford himself later wrote in his retrospective journal, Of Plymouth Plantation, of another crisis that was just as threatening as that first deadly winter.

Unfortunately, the full accounting of Thanksgiving's origin is rarely told, with only a few notable exceptions - chief among them, radio powerhouse Rush Limbaugh.

Here it is:

The Plymouth colonists were socialists before socialism was cool. They entered into a contract with one another and a finance company called Merchant Adventurers to create an egalitarian commune in which their wealth, food in particular, would be collectively stored and redistributed equally among members. This was the forebear of the modern-day American counterculture collectivist commune or even Israel's more mainstream kibbutz, which survive on government subsidies. Equality is put before freedom or even productivity.

To his dismay, Bradford quickly discovered the fundamental flaw of collectivism: its perverse incentive to be less productive. The strong, young men of their commune, he noted, should have been their most productive members, but they resented being assigned extra work that benefited another man's family, so they refused. The less productive members, believing someone else would provide for them, had little incentive to improve their ways, so they didn't. …