“How Private Property Rights Saved the Pilgrims,” is an interesting commentary by George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin. Somin debunks common myths about the Pilgrims and Native Americans, noting that the Pilgrims struggled even after the supposedly bountiful first Thanksgiving, due to their later-discarded system of communal farming, until they adopted individual private property rights, which led to them finally prospering. And he debunks the common myth that property rights were a white man’s concept, noting that property rights existed among many Native American tribes.
Quoting economist Benjamin Powell, he chronicles the Pilgrims’ experiences, and how they suffered due to their initial collective-farm approach:
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…
In 1620 Plymouth Plantation was founded with a system of communal property rights. Food and supplies were held in common and then distributed based on equality and need as determined by Plantation officials. People received the same rations whether or not they contributed to producing the food, and residents were forbidden from producing their own food. Governor William Bradford, in his 1647 history, Of Plymouth Plantation, wrote that this system was found to breed much [shirking of work, as] young men, that were most able and fit for labour, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. 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, 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. It was only after allowing greater property rights that they could feast without worrying that famine was just around the corner.
As Professor Somin notes, Tom Bethell of the Hoover Institution gave a more detailed account in a 1999 article.
Another persistent myth about Colonial America is that the Indians had no property rights prior to the arrival of the White Man, and that property rights were thus an alien concept to them. But as Professor Somin, an expert on property rights, notes, this was not true for many Indian tribes, which utilized property rights.
As economist Terry Anderson, an expert on Native American issues, discussed at length in a 1997 article, many Indian tribes used property rights for a wide array of purposes long before whites arrived. Ironically, the myth of Native American hostility to property rights was first promoted by 18th and 19th century whites as a justification for dispossessing Indians of their land on the grounds that they did not really own it. In the 20th century, the myth was perpetuated by radical environmentalists in order to show that Native Americans had a supposedly superior collectivist ethic that whites should imitate.