November 23, 2020 Reading Time: 8 minutes

Thanksgiving is normally a time of family festivities, when relatives and good friends come together for a fine meal, catching up with what has been happening in everyone’s life, and a general good cheer. A month later Christmas and New Year’s brings an end to the old year and the start of another. But things are very different this time around because of the coronavirus and the government response.

Government regulations restrict or ban other than minimal sized groups gathering in one place. Everyone is cautioned or commanded to wear face masks and stay at least six feet apart. And the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) strongly recommends that people not travel for Thanksgiving, and instead isolate at home with no one else or only with the smallest number of others. 

The idea that people should be free and at liberty to make their own best judgments on such matters without the heavy-handed control and command of the government seems to be a thing of the past – at least for now. We far too willingly and easily allow our self-responsibilities and our self-governance to be taken away and transferred to the decision-making of political paternalists who presume to know how we should act, with whom, and for what purposes. 

Political Paternalism Thwarts Self-Responsibility

But don’t we need government to take on these duties and responsibilities for us, since we oftentimes seem irresponsible and thoughtless in our actions in general, and certainly in the company of others? But even if this may sometimes be so, how shall people be expected to learn how to act more wisely in terms of themselves and others, if the need and opportunity to act in more thoughtful and responsible ways are increasingly narrowed or taken away by government agents telling us, instead, what to do and not do, and where and when?

In one of his famous essays, the 19th century British social philosopher, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), suggested that less responsible people can only hope for a benevolent dictator to guide them until they have matured enough for self-rule. His British contemporary, the historian, Thomas B. Macaulay (1800-1859), replied that such a prescription reminded him of the fool in the old story who said that he would not go into the water until he knew how to swim. If you wait under paternalism until you are ready for self-responsibility, you will never have learned the lessons through the necessities of everyday life by which the ability for more mature and thoughtful decision-making are acquired. 

Now we are facing an acceleration of such paternalism with a new incoming presidential administration in Washington, D.C. starting in January 2021 that proposes and promises even more political paternalism at ever-increasing costs. These increasing costs will come not only in the form, perhaps, of higher taxes and increased business regulation and more income redistribution, but in the rising cost of less personal liberty of choice and decision-making in more corners of our lives. 

Embracing or Avoiding the Word, “Socialism”

The use of the word “socialism” is being bandied about in the face of these prospective political changes in the United States. There are some more radical “progressives” who say that we should embrace it and not be afraid. Others are afraid of it, not because they don’t support a more and bigger government, but due to the fact that it carries a negative connotation that some of those holding or running for political office do not want as an ideological albatross around their neck when facing the voters.

Others use “socialism” as a word of criticism and condemnation. But sometimes some of those using it in this fashion, it turns out, are conscious or unwitting advocates, themselves, for a larger orbit of activist government policies without thinking a bit that some of what they take for granted or propose are also aspects or variations on the socialist theme. 

Few are the voices, I would suggest, who really understand that a free society is one with a lot less, indeed, a far more minimal, government than most people realize or can conceive as feasible because they have lived so long under forms of political paternalism that they cannot imagine life without it. (See my book, For a New Liberalism [2019].)

The Plymouth Colonists Practiced Plato’s Communism

It is not surprising, then, how few Americans really know and appreciate the meaning and relevance of Thanksgiving in terms of its origin in the history of the Puritans – the “Pilgrim Fathers” – who came 400 years in November 1620 to the New World, landing at what today we know as Plymouth, Massachusetts. Desiring to turn their back on what they saw and considered as the material corruption of the Old World, they wanted to erect a New Jerusalem that would not only be religiously devout but be built on a new foundation of communal sharing and social altruism.

Their goal was the communism of Plato’s Republic, in which all would work and share in common, knowing neither private property nor self-interested acquisitiveness. What resulted is recorded in the diary of Governor William Bradford, the head of the colony. The colonists collectively cleared and worked the land, but they brought forth neither the bountiful harvest they hoped for, nor did it create a spirit of shared and cheerful brotherhood.

The less industrious members of the colony came late to their work in the fields, and were slow and easy in their labors. Knowing that they and their families were to receive an equal share of whatever the group produced, they saw little reason to be more diligent in their efforts. The harder working among the colonists became resentful that their efforts would be redistributed to the more malingering members of the colony. Soon they, too, were coming late to work and were less energetic in the fields.

Collective Work Equaled Individual Resentment

As Governor Bradford of the Plymouth Colony explained in his old English (though with the spelling modernized):

“For the young men that were able and fit for labor and service did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children, without recompense. The strong, or men of parts, had no more division of food, clothes, etc. then he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labor, and food, clothes, etc. with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignant and disrespect unto them. And for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc. they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could husbands brook it.”

Because of the disincentives and resentments that spread among the population, crops were sparse and the rationed equal shares from the collective harvest were not enough to ward off starvation and death. Two years of communism in practice had left alive only a fraction of the original number of the Plymouth colonists.

Private Property as Incentive to Industry

Realizing that another season like those that had just passed would mean the extinction of the entire community, the elders of the colony decided to try something radically different: the introduction of private property rights and the right of the individual families to keep the fruits of their own labor.

As Governor Bradford put it:

“And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end . . . This had a 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 Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little-ones with them to set corn, which before would a ledge weakness, and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.”

The Plymouth Colony experienced a great bounty of food. Private ownership meant that there was now a close link between work and reward. Industry became the order of the day as the men and women in each family went to the fields on their separate private farms. When the harvest time came, not only did many families produce enough for their own needs, but also they had surpluses that they could freely exchange with their neighbors for mutual benefit and improvement.

In Governor Bradford’s words:

“By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine, now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many, for which they blessed God. And the effect of their planting was well seen, for all had, one way or other, pretty well to bring the year about, and some of the abler sort and more industrious had to spare, and sell to others, so as any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.”

Rejecting Collectivism for Individualism

Hard experience had taught the Plymouth colonists the fallacy and error in the ideas that since the time of the ancient Greeks had promised paradise through collectivism rather than individualism. As Governor Bradford expressed it:

“The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years, and that amongst the Godly and sober men, may well convince of the vanity and conceit of Plato’s and other ancients; — that the taking away of property, and bringing into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed confusion and discontent, and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.”

Was this realization that communism was incompatible with human nature and the prosperity of humanity to be despaired or be a cause for guilt? Not in Governor Bradford’s eyes. It was simply a matter of accepting that altruism and collectivism were inconsistent with the nature of man, and that human institutions should reflect the reality of man’s nature if he is to prosper. Said Governor Bradford:

“Let none object this is man’s corruption, and nothing to the curse itself. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in his wisdom saw another course fitter for them.”

The desire to “spread the wealth” and for government to plan and regulate people’s lives is as old as the utopian fantasy in Plato’s Republic. The Pilgrim Fathers tried and soon realized its bankruptcy and failure as a way for men to live together in society.

They, instead, accepted man as he is: hardworking, productive, and innovative when allowed the liberty to follow his own interests in improving his own circumstances and that of his family. And even more, out of his industry result the quantities of useful goods that enable men to trade to their mutual benefit.

Giving Thanks for the Triumph of Freedom

In the wilderness of the New World, the Plymouth Pilgrims had progressed from the false dream of communism to the sound realism of capitalism. Whether our family gatherings this Thanksgiving be small or almost nonexistent due to the regulations and intimidations of government, we need to recall and remember the lesson to be learned from that first Thanksgiving.

Too many in the halls of higher education, from the bully pulpits of social and mass media, or from those newly elected in 2020 or already running for the elections in 2022, are making calls for the collectivism that those first Plymouth colonists learned to reject. It is 400 years, this year, since those Pilgrims arrived in America in November 1620 and began that failed “experiment” in socialism within the Plymouth colony.

It is time to take their experience to heart and celebrate not the collectivism with which they began their start in the New World, but the spirit of liberty, private property, self-responsibility, and freedom of enterprise which they and those who came to America in the following centuries left to us as a legacy of individual freedom, limited government, and the prosperity that only can come from the competitive liberty of the free and voluntary marketplace. 

Richard M. Ebeling

Richard M. Ebeling

Richard M. Ebeling, an AIER Senior Fellow, is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina.

Ebeling lived on AIER’s campus from 2008 to 2009.

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