Stossel Video: The Tragedy Of The Commons

William Bradford

Fox Business aired this on Thanksgiving. I almost forgot about it but then I saw a piece at the Washington Times about how our kids are lied to in school, or at least not given the full story of the Pilgrims. They almost starved because they started out in Plymouth with communal land. They tried out Marxism before it was called Marxism. At least someone had the good sense to put an end to it. Things took a turn for the better after Governor William Bradford got rid of the common land system and allowed private property.

Bradford is also clear about what halted the misery. It wasn’t Squanto’s gardening tips. It was because they abolished communism and set up a private property system. As Bradford writes:

“At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other things to go on in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end, only for present use (but made no division for inheritance), and ranged all boys and youth under some family. This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted then otherwise would have been by any means the Gov. or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content.”

After establishing even this imperfect private property model, the Pilgrims never starved again. That seems pretty important, doesn’t it?

It’s not some minor detail like how they started wearing buckled shoes or how much beer they had onboard the Mayflower (they had quite a bit). It’s the crux of the Pilgrims’ story — why they starved and how they solved that problem.

There is a vital lesson that the Pilgrims learned from this experience that schoolchildren should be learning as well. Bradford thought it important enough to include this aside before continuing his narrative:

“The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years, and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients, applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property, and bringing in community into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser then God.” (Read More)

People take care of private property. Public or common property? Not so much. Stossel used public bathrooms as an example. I think of the bathrooms at some of the public parks we’ve visited with the kids and cringe.

Here’s more from Stossel at Online Athens:

The colony’s contract said their new settlement was to be a “common.” Everyone was to receive necessities out of the common stock. There was to be little individual property.

That wasn’t the only thing about the Plymouth Colony that sounds like it was from Karl Marx: Its labor was to be organized according to the different capabilities of the settlers. People would produce according to their abilities and consume according to their needs. That sure sounds fair.

They nearly starved and created what economists call the “tragedy of the commons.”

If people can access the same stuff by working less, they will. Plymouth settlers faked illness instead of working the common property. The harvest was meager, and for two years, there was famine. But then, after the colony’s governor, William Bradford, wrote that they should “set corn every man for his own particular,” they dropped the commons idea. He assigned to every family a parcel of land to treat as its own.

The results were dramatic. Much more corn was planted. Instead of famine, there was plenty. Thanks to private property, they got food — and thanks to it, we have food today. (Read More)