Thanks, Private Property!

Families will argue this Thanksgiving.

Such arguments have a long tradition.

The Pilgrims had clashing ideas about how to organize their settlement in the New World. The resolution of that debate made the first Thanksgiving possible.

The Pilgrims were religious, united by faith and a powerful desire to start anew, away from religious persecution in the Old World. Each member of the community professed a desire to labor together, on behalf of the whole settlement.

In other words: socialism.

But when they tried that, the Pilgrims almost starved.

Their collective farming — the whole community deciding when and how much to plant, when to harvest, who would do the work — was an inefficient disaster.

“By the spring,” Pilgrim leader William Bradford wrote in his diary, “our food stores were used up and people grew weak and thin. Some swelled with hunger… So they began to think how … they might not still thus languish in misery.”

His answer: divide the commune into parcels and assign each Pilgrim family its own property. As Bradford put it, they “set corn every man for his own particular. … Assigned every family a parcel of land.”

Private property protects us from what economists call the tragedy of the commons. The “commons” is a shared resource. That means it’s really owned by no one, and no one person has much incentive to protect it or develop it.

The Pilgrims’ simple change to private ownership, wrote Bradford, “made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been.” Soon they had so much plenty that they could share food with the natives.

The Indians weren’t socialists, either. They had property rules of their own. That helped them grow enough so they had plenty, even during cold winters.

When property rights are tossed aside, even for the sake of religious fellowship or in the name of the working class, people just don’t work as hard.

Why farm all day — or invent new ways of farming — when everyone else will get an equal share?

You may not intend to be a slacker, but suddenly, reasons to stay in bed seem more compelling than they did when your own livelihood and family were dependent on your own efforts.

Pilgrim teenagers were especially lazy. Some claimed they were too sick to work. Some stole the commune’s crops, picking corn at night, before it was ready.

But once Bradford created private lots, the Pilgrims worked hard. They could have sat around arguing about who should do how much work, whether English tribes or Indian ones were culturally superior, and what God would decree if She/He set rules for farming.

None of that would have yielded the bounty that a simple division of land into private lots did.

When people respect property rights, they also interact more peacefully.

At this year’s Thanksgiving dinner, if people start arguing about how society should be run, try being a peacemaker by suggesting that everyone should get to decide what to do with their own property.

If your uncle wants government to tax imports or thinks police should seize people’s marijuana, tell him that he doesn’t have to smoke weed or buy Chinese products, but he should keep his hands off other people’s property.

If your niece says everyone loves socialism now, remind her she has enough trouble managing her own life without telling the rest of the world what to do. When families don’t agree, they certainly shouldn’t try to run millions of other people’s lives.

In America today, religious groups practice different rites but usually don’t demand that government ban others’ practices. Private schools set curricula without nasty public fights. Businesses stock shelves without politicians fighting about which products they should carry.

All those systems work pretty well. That’s because they are private.

In most of our lives, private ownership makes political arguments unnecessary.

I’m thankful for that.

5 thoughts on “Thanks, Private Property!

  1. Excuse me but the present government seems okay with deciding what products people can or cannot buy and what they pay for it , when tariffs are placed on imports.

  2. Mr. Stossel-I have been reading your editorials for several years. I figured out I’m a libertarian at heart. I’m comfortable with that perspective. Your article on November 30 in the Roswell Daily Record newspaper in Roswell, New Mexico. Keep up the good work. I always look forward to your articles.

  3. why is this history ignored (i.e. rejected as seminal economics) by progressive, quasi-socialist, academic adherents?

  4. In the Courier’s Thanksgiving edition, columnist John Stossel re-told the story of the Pilgrims’ failed attempt at growing corn communally. This oft referenced bit of history for the purpose of discrediting socialism is true. It is also propaganda—propaganda in what it leaves out. The Pilgrims and all other English colonies practiced socialism from the beginning, in the form of militias to protect against outside threats, port infrastructure, town centers and roads, and a collective effort to put out fires. Circumstances compelled our ancestors to see that, in some cases, socialism was a more sensible solution than capitalism, specifically when it came to common needs and common threats.
    Fast-forward to the 21st Century and we see the Stossels of America doing everything they can to discredit, what Bernie Sanders labels, “democratic socialism” while embracing it every day in thought, voice, and action. “We need a strong military to protect our ‘freedom!’” … “Government needs to build a new post office!” “The Town needs to fix these potholes!” “I’m a law and order American!” “No more controlled burns! Hire chipping crews instead!” “Keep government hands off my Social Security and Medicare!” “Dial 9-11!” …And on and on.
    I agree with John Stossel and my conservative friends on many points. In some cases, socialism can and does destroy individual initiative. But be an honest and, therefore, credible. We all benefit greatly from a large dose of democratic socialism mixed in with our “capitalist” society, and always have. Cherish, don’t disparage, the arrangement.

    1. …millionaire Bernie Sanders is slow at learning (doesn’t feel the need, I guess)…’democratic socialism’ of Northern European states does not exist…however, in action he sure keeps to the basic principle of communism (called socialism for the western mind to more easily forget the 100+million people slaughtered by the ‘paradises of equality’ in the 20th century)…which is: what is mine is mine – what is yours should be redistributed…don’t believe me? Ask him to pay 95% of his income to taxes…

      …as of private property, handling it requires personal responsibility and individualistic approach…people rather like ‘we are all in this together’ and ‘gimme, I’m entitled’…

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