Big Government Not Invited to Thanksgiving Feast: Caroline Baum

It is the tradition of this column every year at this time to recount the story of Thanksgiving.

The history of the Pilgrims’ early struggles in their new land and triumph over obstacles resonates on many levels, from the personal to the political. The government’s actions in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 -- some necessary, others not -- and intrusion on the private sector have given the story renewed poignancy.

On Nov. 2, the U.S. electorate resoundingly repudiated Barack Obama and the Democratic agenda, the president’s protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. Some “no” votes came from an energized Tea Party movement, for whom less (government) is more. Others voted Republican because they thought Obama was focused on the wrong things: on health-care reform rather than jobs, as if the president creates jobs. Still others were fed up with Washington and voted to kick the bums out.

With control of the House and a pickup of six Senate seats, Republicans will have to prove they are worthy of the public’s trust come Jan. 3. (Obama still has his veto pen.) In the interim, we can be thankful Americans expressed a desire to return to their roots (low taxes, for sure; reduced government benefits? not so much) and hope their voices will be heard.

For source material, I rely on the accounts of William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Bay Colony for 30 years between 1621 and 1656. Bradford’s history “Of Plimoth Plantation” was first published in 1856.

First Famine

Most Americans think of Thanksgiving as a day off from school or work, a time to gather with friends and family and celebrate with a huge feast. If children know anything about the origins of this national holiday, declared each year by presidential proclamation, it’s that the Pilgrims, grateful for a good harvest in their new land, set aside this day to give thanks.

Adults aren’t any better informed. They may know something of the hardships encountered by the Pilgrims, a group of English separatists who came to the New World to escape religious persecution. What they probably don’t know, since it’s not part of the politically correct high school curriculum, is how these immigrants overcame obstacles and prospered in the New World.

The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 and established the Plymouth Bay Colony. The first winters were harsh, and crop yields were poor. In spite of their deep religious convictions, the Pilgrims took to stealing from one another.

Empty Larder

Half the Pilgrims died or returned to England in the first year. Those who remained went hungry. Even so, the 53 remaining pilgrims celebrated the harvest, as was the custom in England, in the autumn of 1621.

Finally, in the spring of 1623, Governor Bradford and the others “begane to thinke how they might raise as much corne as they could, and obtaine a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery,” according to Bradford’s history.

One of the traditions the Pilgrims had brought with them from England was a practice known as “farming in common.” Everything they produced was put into a common pool; the harvest was rationed according to need.

They had thought “that the taking away of property, and bringing in community into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing,” Bradford recounts.

Born to Work

They were wrong. “For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much imployment that would have been to their benefite and comforte,” Bradford writes.

Young, able-bodied men resented working for others without compensation. They thought it an “injuestice” to receive the same allotment of food and clothing as those who didn’t pull their weight. What they lacked were appropriate incentives.

After the Pilgrims had endured near-starvation for three winters, Bradford decided to experiment when it came time for spring planting in 1623. He allocated a plot of land to each family, that “they should set corne every man for his owne perticuler, and in that regard trust to themselves.”

The results were nothing short of miraculous.

Bradford writes: “This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corne was planted than other waise would have bene by any means the Govr or any other could use, and saved him a great deall of trouble, and gave far better content.”

Proper Incentives

The women now went willingly into the field, carrying their young children on their backs. Those who previously claimed they were too old or ill to work embraced the idea of private property once they could enjoy the fruits of their own labor. Eventually they produced enough corn to trade the excess for furs and other desired commodities.

Given the proper incentives, the Pilgrims enjoyed a bountiful harvest in the fall of 1623, and set aside “a day of thanksgiving” to thank God for their good fortune.

“Any generall wante or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day,” Bradford writes in an entry from 1647, the last year covered by his history.

Their good fortune had little to do with God. In 1623, they were responding to the same incentives that, almost four centuries later, form the basis for free and prosperous economies.

When the financial crisis hit, capitalism took the fall. After years of moving in the opposite direction, we should give thanks that free markets have found a voice in Washington.

(Caroline Baum, author of “Just What I Said,” is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Caroline Baum in New York at cabaum@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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