opinion web
Liberal Opinion Conservative Opinion
John Stossel
John Stossel
10 Feb 2016
High-Tech Ted

Politicians tailor their messages to different audiences. Facing New Hampshire's primary, Ted Cruz talked … Read More.

3 Feb 2016
Political Arrogance

After the Iowa caucus results, it looks like Hillary Clinton vs. Marco Rubio in November! They lead the … Read More.

27 Jan 2016
Running on Empty

Cars run on fuel. Politicians run on votes, and they'll do almost anything to get them. That includes … Read More.

Happy Starvation Day


Had today's political class been in power in 1623, tomorrow's holiday would have been called "Starvation Day" instead of Thanksgiving. Of course, most of us wouldn't be alive to celebrate it.

Every year around this time, schoolchildren are taught about that wonderful day when Pilgrims and Native Americans shared the fruits of the harvest. But the first Thanksgiving in 1623 almost didn't happen.

Long before the failure of modern socialism, the earliest European settlers gave us a dramatic demonstration of the fatal flaws of collectivism. Unfortunately, few Americans today know it.

The Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony organized their farm economy along communal lines. The goal was to share the work and produce equally.

That's why they nearly all starved.

When people can get the same return with less effort, most people make less effort. Plymouth settlers faked illness rather than working the common property. Some even stole, despite their Puritan convictions. Total production was too meager to support the population, and famine resulted. This went on for two years.

"So as it well appeared that famine must still ensue the next year also, if not some way prevented," wrote Gov. William Bradford in his diary. The colonists, he said, "began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length after much debate of things, (I) (with the advice of the chiefest among them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land."

In other words, the people of Plymouth moved from socialism to private farming. The results were dramatic.

"This had very good success," Bradford wrote, "for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine, now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many."

Because of the change, the first Thanksgiving could be held in November 1623.

What Plymouth suffered under communalism was what economists today call the tragedy of the commons. The problem has been known since ancient Greece. As Aristotle noted, "That which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it."

If individuals can take from a common pot regardless of how much they put in it, each person has an incentive to be a free-rider, to do as little as possible and take as much as possible because what one fails to take will be taken by someone else. Soon, the pot is empty.

What private property does — as the Pilgrims discovered — is connect effort to reward, creating an incentive for people to produce far more. Then, if there's a free market, people will trade their surpluses to others for the things they lack. Mutual exchange for mutual benefit makes the community richer.

Here's the biggest irony of all: The U.S. government has yet to apply the lesson to its first conquest, Native Americans. The U.S. government has held most Indian land in trust since the 19th century. This discourages initiative and risk-taking because, among other reasons, it can't be used as collateral for loans. On Indian reservations, "private land is 40 to 90 percent more productive than land owned through the Bureau of Indian Affairs," says economist Terry Anderson, executive director of PERC. "If you drive through western reservations, you will see on one side cultivated fields, irrigation, and on the other side, overgrazed pasture, run-down pastures and homes. One is a simple commons; the other side is private property. You have Indians on both sides. The important thing is someone owns one side."

Secure property rights are the key. When producers know their future products are safe from confiscation, they take risks and invest. But when they fear they will be deprived of the fruits of their labor, they will do as little as possible.

That's the lost lesson of Thanksgiving.

John Stossel is host of "Stossel" on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of "Give Me a Break" and of "Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity." To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at <a href="" <>></a>. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at




4 Comments | Post Comment
I read about this once before - the first Pilgrim agricultural setup, that is. To take all the farm goods, put them in one pot, and redistribute them equally regardless of input - could only be called collectivist agriculture, or more simply, communism. This system not only removes the incentive to work harder and produce more, but it also eliminates any incentive to innovate and find ways to produce more WITHOUT working harder! Agricultural technology has come a LONG way since the Pilgrim days, but the innovation didn't come from countries that had collectivized their farming industry! Rush Limbaugh discussed this particular episode of our history in one of his books, the ones he wrote back in the early 90s. He said that in our time, while most of the rest of the world has been "tinkering with socialism for well over 100 years, trying to perfect it, re-define it, and re-invent it," the Pilgrims scrapped it early on. Rush pointed out that the Plymouth Rock colony figured this out "more than a century before Karl Marx was even born." The only thing that strikes me is why the upcoming failure wasn't obvious to Governor Bradford from the get-go...or worse, why some people today still think that a collectivist system like this will work wonders if only the right people are put in charge. Or why some refuse to accept that socialism and communism haven't worked anywhere they've been tried, simply because they run directly counter to an immutable, unchanging human nature.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Matt
Thu Nov 25, 2010 1:03 AM
As always, both history and psychology are a little more complicated than ideology would have you believe. The reality of the history is easy enough to look up, though I will note that the Native help was freely given.

The tragedy of the commons is the thing that most people get wrong, or don't see from the other perspective. Put in very simple terms, TotC has to do with the scarcity of resources and people who want them. The common (so to speak) example is that of grazing land for a hundred cattle and two people who have a hundred each. Both will try to maximize their take. What you were looking for is Social Loafing. The problem with applying this to the Pilgrims is that they each had an incentive to do for their fellows: personal salvation. If the very real (to them; I'm an atheist) threat of Hell doesn't do it, then it ain't getting done. Bradford's writing (which was not a diary, being written much later) is a great example of tailoring information to meet the audience. He was pursuing mammon, which justifies anything.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Chris Abbey
Fri Nov 26, 2010 8:02 AM
This is another myth that is making the rounds of the right wing echo chamber that the early settlers were communists that failed because of their political beliefs and, apparently, being unprepared for much more severe weather than expected, the various problems establishing an agricultural community-a daunting task at any time, and being generally poorly equiped for such an enterprise had nothing to do with it. It was a purely poltical problem and after the magic wand was used and they all suddenly were transformed into free market capitalists shorn from the tyranny of the collective they never experienced hunger or want again. All righty then.
Comment: #3
Posted by: Tom Gibson
Sun Nov 27, 2011 8:25 PM
I watched your program about the commons and wouldn't you agree in retrospect that applying a solution to a park in New York to the Amazon forest issues is a bit the same error as applying family sructures models to a government and citizens relationships... Have you looked at the failure of Brazil government program that gives land to people? How that accelerates the depletion of the forest, as then the big soy company buy them out for nothing, they move in the cities without any money mangement skills and a few years later they have to move back further down in the forest...

Comment: #4
Posted by: Pierre Jasmin
Sun Dec 11, 2011 7:11 PM
Already have an account? Log in.
New Account  
Your Name:
Your E-mail:
Your Password:
Confirm Your Password:

Please allow a few minutes for your comment to be posted.

Enter the numbers to the right: comments policy
John Stossel
Feb. `16
Su Mo Tu We Th Fr Sa
31 1 2 3 4 5 6
7 8 9 10 11 12 13
14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24 25 26 27
28 29 1 2 3 4 5
About the author About the author
Write the author Write the author
Printer friendly format Printer friendly format
Email to friend Email to friend
View by Month
Lawrence Kudlow
Lawrence KudlowUpdated 13 Feb 2016
Mark Shields
Mark ShieldsUpdated 13 Feb 2016
diane dimond
Diane DimondUpdated 13 Feb 2016

23 Sep 2015 Government: Here to Help!

18 Dec 2013 Look Back in Liberty 2013

10 Sep 2014 Hold On, Mr. President