Thanksgiving: Massachusetts Discovers Property Rights

Thanksgiving is a day layered in tradition and myth. The standard story makes much of the creative efforts of our ancestors, the assistance provided by the friendly Indians (aka Native Americans) and the richness of the land and seas. That view is romantic, but obscures the fact that over half the original settlers died in the first year, bloody wars between the settlers and the Indians soon dominated the frontier, and that for the first three years, the “bountiful” earth provided little food to the starving colonials.

The Pilgrims were a highly religious group seeking to live as an extended family in a communal order. Initially they placed all farm lands into a “commons” which all would farm and harvest from collectively. That system goes back to tribal societies with strong cultural rules. Protestant culture, it turned out, did not suffice to discipline the work effort of their individualistic members.

By spring of the third year, Governor Bradford took advice from the leadership of the settlement, noting that collective agriculture was failing. Too little effort from the most able-bodied, wives seeing little reason to neglect their families to toil in the fields, single individuals resentful of being exploited. The colony was experiencing the traditional Tragedy of the Commons—what is owned by everyone is cared for by no one!

Bradford then allocated a portion of land to each of the settlers, to work themselves and to keep all the product thereby produced. That year’s harvest was indeed bountiful and the colony mounted the first Thanksgiving.

The most important element was not the early assistance of friendly natives, the fertility of the land, the religiosity of the colonists, nor even the diligence of the colonialists per se, but rather the institution of private property. Privatization of the commons linked the efforts of each land owner with the fruits of his or her labor. It is that creative feedback loop that allowed a failing colony to succeed. It might well play a similar role in enhancing the productivity of the many sectors of America which still reside as common property resources—owned by all and cared for by none.