How Capitalism and Property Rights Saved the Pilgrims From Starving
Law professor llya Somin notes a “lesson of the original Thanksgiving: that the Pilgrims nearly starved to death because of collectivism and eventually saved themselves by adopting a system of private property.” He then highlights an article by economist Benjamin Powell:
Many people believe that after suffering through a severe winter, the Pilgrims’ food shortages were resolved the following spring when the Native Americans taught them to plant corn and a Thanksgiving celebration resulted. In fact, the pilgrims continued to face chronic food shortages for three years until the harvest of 1623. Bad weather or lack of farming knowledge did not cause the pilgrims’ shortages. Bad economic incentives did.
In 1620 Plymouth Plantation was founded with a system of communal property rights. . .People received the same rations whether or not they contributed to producing the food, and residents were forbidden from producing their own food. . . 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. . .
This change, [Governor William] 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. . . .
Professor Somin also links to this 1999 article by Tom Bethell, which provides a more detailed account of how property rights saved the Pilgrims.