This week school children across the country will be hearing the tale of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving. You probably heard a similar story when you were in a kid that went something like this:
The Pilgrims sailed over to America from Plymouth, England on the Mayflower. During their first winter in the new country many of them starved because they were unable to produce enough food. In the spring, though, a Native America tribe taught the Pilgrims how to plant crops that would flourish, such as maize (corn). That fall, after an abundant harvest, the Pilgrims gave thanks by celebrating the first Thanksgiving feast with the Indians.
What is often left out of the story is what happened next: The Pilgrims continued to face food shortages for three more years.
Kids don’t often hear this not-so-happy ending. They are also rarely told the reason why the Pilgrims went hungry. “Bad weather or lack of farming knowledge did not cause the pilgrims’ shortages,” says Benjamin W. Powell. “Bad economic incentives did.”
In 1620 Plymouth Plantation was founded with a system of communal property rights. Food and supplies were held in common and then distributed based on equality and need as determined by Plantation officials. People received the same rations whether or not they contributed to producing the food, and residents were forbidden from producing their own food. Governor William Bradford, in his 1647 history, Of Plymouth Plantation, wrote that this system was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. The problem was that young men, that were most able and fit for labour, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. Because of the poor incentives, little food was produced.
Faced with potential starvation in the spring of 1623, the colony decided to implement a new economic system. Every family was assigned a private parcel of land. They could then keep all they grew for themselves, but now they alone were responsible for feeding themselves. While not a complete private property system, the move away from communal ownership had dramatic results.
This change, Bradford wrote, had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. Giving people economic incentives changed their behavior. Once the new system of property rights was in place, the women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability.
Once the Pilgrims in the Plymouth Plantation abandoned their communal economic system and adopted one with greater individual property rights, they never again faced the starvation and food shortages of the first three years. It was only after allowing greater property rights that they could feast without worrying that famine was just around the corner.
For a more detailed version of the story, see this 1999 article by Tom Bethell.