Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Pilgrims' cautionary tale

Kate Zernike, writing for the New York Times, finds fault with Tea Partiers for their "interpretation" of the Pilgrims' early ecomonic experiment in socialism. The Pilgrims were required by the terms of their agreement with the London Company, which financed the colony, to hold all things in common. As you can imagine this created all kinds of disincentives to work.

Eventually, William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth Colony, decided to parcel out the land for each family to farm, with each family benefitting according to the labor they put into it. The result was a stunning increase in production. (Should we be surprised?)

This little experiment in collectivist policy has served as a cautionary tale for years among conservative and libertarian thinkers. Ms. Zernike, however, objects. She refers to it as "one common telling" of the story of the Pilgrims. Perhaps it's a common telling of the story because this is the story that no less an authority than William Bradford tells in his fascinating first hand account entitled On Plymouth Plantation.

Here's Bradford in his own words:
All this while no supplies were heard of, nor did they know when they might expect any. So they began to consider how to raise more corn, and obtain a better crop than they had done, so that they might not continue to endure the misery of want. At length after much debate, the Governor with the advice of the chief among them, allowed each man to plant other corn for his own household, and to trust to themselves for that; in all other things to go on in the general way as before. So every family was assigned a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number with that in view, - for present purposes only, and making no division for inheritance, - all boys and children being included under some family. This was very successful. It made all hands very industrious, so that much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could devise, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and give far better satisfaction. The women now went willingly into the field and took their little ones with them to plant corn, while before they would allege weakness and inability; and to have compelled them would have been though great tyranny and oppression.

The failure of this experiment of communal service, which was tried for several years, and by good and honest men proves the emptiness of the theory of Plato and other ancients, applauded by some of later times, - that the taking away of private property, and the possession of it in community, by a commonwealth, would make a state happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For in this instance, community of property (so far as it went) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment which would have been to the general benefit and comfort. For the young men who were most able and fit for service objected to bring forced to spend their time and strength in working for other men’s wives and children, with any recompense. The strong man or the resourceful man had no more share of food, clothes, etc., than the weak man who was not able to do a quarter the other could. This was thought injustice. The aged and graver men, who were ranked and equalized in labour, food, clothes, etc., with the humbler and younger ones, thought it some indignity and disrespect to them. As for men’s wives who were obliged to do service for other men, such as cooking, washing their clothes, etc., they considered it a kind of slavery, and many husbands would not brook it. This feature of it would have been worse still, if they had been men of an inferior class. If (it was an thought) all were to share alike, and all were to do alike, then all were on an equality throughout, and one was as good as another, and so, if it did not actually abolish those very relations which God himself has set among men, it did at least greatly diminish the mutual respect that is so important should be preserved amongst them. Let none argue that this is due to human failing, rather than to the communistic plan of life in itself. I answer, seeing that all men have this failing in them, that God in His wisdom saw that another plan of life was fitter for them.

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