Each year at this time somebody in the right-libertarian world, reenacting an obligatory Thanksgiving ritual, drags out the old chestnut about the Pilgrims at Plymouth almost starving from “communism” until private property rights and capitalism saved them. This year John Stossel (“We Should Be Thankful for Private Property,” Reason, Nov. 27) gets the honors.
In the received version the Puritans, motivated by a misguided idealism, initially set out to restore the primitive Christian communism of the Book of Acts, “holding all things in common.” Stossel characterizes the arrangement as sounding “like something out of Karl Marx.” When the obvious incentive problems entailed in this practice led to starvation, the settlers accommodated themselves to reality and divided up the land and worked it individually. Output skyrocketed, starvation was averted, and everybody was happy.
But that’s not the way things actually happened.
Richard Curl’s history of cooperatives in America, For All the People, fills in some missing details that change the meaning of the story entirely. Curl supplements Bradford’s history with material from J. A. Doyle’s English Colonies. According to Doyle, the agreement between the Pilgrim Separatists and the Merchant Adventurers corporation provided that
“[a]ll settlers … were to receive their necessaries out of the common stock. For seven years there was to be no individual property or trade, but the labor of the colony was to be organized according to the different capacities of the settlers. At the end of the seven years the company was to be dissolved and the whole stock divided.
Two reservations were inserted, one entitling the settlers to separate plots of land about their houses, and the other allowing them two days in the week for cultivation of such holdings. The London partners, however, refused to grant these concessions, and the agents of the emigrants withdrew them rather than give up the scheme.”
In the conventional narrative the apostolic zeal of the Pilgrims, who desire to recreate the communism of the early Church, is confronted by hard reality. But according to Curl, relations between the Puritan settlers and the Merchant Adventurers make more sense in light of an entirely different subtext — the English peasantry’s relations with the landed classes in the Old Country: “The colonists, most of them tenant farmers in the open fields of an old manorial hunting park in Nottinghamshire, considered that the investors’ demand essentially reduced them to serfdom. The settlers were asking for no more than was normal under England’s manorial system in effect since the Middle Ages. Peasants worked in the lord’s fields but also had time to work with individual plots for their household needs.” The turning point of the story is a lot less like Stossel’s “capitalist reform” than the Diggers on St. George’s Hill.
The Plymouth story is sometimes compared to that of agriculture in the last days of the Soviet Union, where most of the food consumed came from private family plots — essentially kitchen gardens with some small livestock thrown in. Had the entire Soviet population been forced to subsist on the output of State and collective farms alone, the result would have been mass starvation — exactly like in Plymouth. This parallel is entirely accurate. What the received version of the Plymouth story leaves out, however, is that the role of the “collective farm” in the little drama is played not by the naive Puritan zealots seeking to “hold all things in common” but by a private corporation chartered by the English crown.
And as Curl describes it, the system of private plots adopted after the rebellion against the Merchant Adventurers wasn’t much like modern fee simple ideas of “private property,” either. It sounds more like the furlong strips in the open-fields of Nottinghamshire: The family plots were ad hoc, to be periodically redivided, and not subject to inheritance.
So the proper analog to what almost killed off the Pilgrims is not, as Stossel says, “Karl Marx” or “today’s [presumably left-wing] politicians and opinion-makers.” It’s the lord of an English manor — or a Fortune 500 corporation.
But the story as it actually happened is still a testament to the evils of statism and the benefits of voluntary cooperation. The Merchant Adventurers, like the Fortune 500 companies of today, was a chartered corporation that depended entirely on benefits and legal privileges conferred by the state. The living arrangements it attempted to impose on the Plymouth settlers were the same as the extractive arrangements that prevailed on an English manor, enforced by the legal privileges the state conferred on the landed nobility. And the new system the Pilgrims replaced them with were the age-old open field system that peasant villages had spontaneously created for themselves, in the absence of coercive interference, since neolithic times.
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