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Pilgrims and property rights

Empower Wisconsin | Nov. 28,  2019

Chew on this during your Thanksgiving dinner discussions: The Pilgrims tried socialism and nearly starved to death.

Fox Business’ John Stossel writes that the New World settlers learned the hard way the value of property rights. That lesson, Stossel notes, is what 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.

Read John Stossel’s column at Fox Business. 

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