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WOLF: Capitalist lesson from first Thanksgiving

Collectivism was nearly the undoing of the Pilgrims

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Despite our current perilous times, Americans still have boundless reasons for giving thanks. True, our economy continues to falter, we face yet another national credit downgrade, and families suffer with high unemployment. The nation teeters precariously between free-market capitalism and European-style socialism. But fortunately, we have guidance from those brave Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower who, nearly four centuries ago, faced a choice similar to ours.

Our modern Thanksgiving celebration and, in fact, the very prosperity that engenders it, are a testament to the difficult lessons those beleaguered Pilgrims learned. Today, we peddle sanitized, cartoonish versions of Thanksgiving to our children as we focus on feasts and football, Christmas purchases and parades. We may be genuinely thankful for the fruits before us, but do we really understand the labors that produced them? As we look around an impoverished globe, we should ask ourselves what exactly it was that those prior generations did that made America the most prosperous nation in history. What lessons can we learn from those Pilgrims?

Among the 102 settlers on the Mayflower were the 40 Pilgrims led by James Carver, the first governor of Plymouth. Those English separatists were ill-prepared for the "hideous and desolate wilderness," as William Bradford would later describe it. Carver died within a month of arriving, leaving Bradford in charge. Bradford's own wife died before even disembarking from the ship, some believe by suicide, given their despair. Fully half the Pilgrims died in the first harsh winter, sometimes two or three a day.

We teach our children that the American Indians, mercifully, came to the Pilgrims' rescue, which formed the basis for our holiday. That's indeed true, noble and worthy of celebration. But Bradford himself later wrote in his retrospective journal, "Of Plymouth Plantation," of another crisis that was just as threatening as that first deadly winter.

Unfortunately, the full accounting of Thanksgiving's origin is rarely told, with only a few notable exceptions - chief among them, radio powerhouse Rush Limbaugh.

Here it is:

The Plymouth colonists were socialists before socialism was cool. They entered into a contract with one another and a finance company called Merchant Adventurers to create an egalitarian commune in which their wealth, food in particular, would be collectively stored and redistributed equally among members. This was the forebear of the modern-day American counterculture collectivist commune or even Israel's more mainstream kibbutz, which survive on government subsidies. Equality is put before freedom or even productivity.

To his dismay, Bradford quickly discovered the fundamental flaw of collectivism: its perverse incentive to be less productive. The strong, young men of their commune, he noted, should have been their most productive members, but they resented being assigned extra work that benefited another man's family, so they refused. The less productive members, believing someone else would provide for them, had little incentive to improve their ways, so they didn't. And who can blame any of them?

At this point, the statist would seek government intervention.

When, for example, in the 20th century Joseph Stalin collectivized the Soviet Union's farms under the guise of freeing the peasant farmer, it required a small army of overseers to force the farmers to actually farm the collectivized "kolkhozy." With little incentive to be productive, farmers were known to cut every corner they could. They'd leave rotting vegetables among the good, which hastened the entire crop's spoilage. They'd plow their fields only deep enough to fool inspectors, but not enough to be suitable for optimal crop production. Stalin's answer was to unleash even more overseers, but it was never enough, and each inspector represented a man who otherwise might be farming. The result: On some of the most fertile land on Earth, a man-made famine contributed to about 11 million deaths.

Back to our Pilgrims. Bradford had a much simpler and effective solution: free-market capitalism. Instead of guaranteeing equal results to each family, he guaranteed equal protection under the law. He carved up the land and gave plots not to the collective, but instead to each individual family. Private property is, of course, the basis of capitalism, and with it, the profit motive is the oxygen that ignites a firestorm of productivity.

In short order, the colonists not only escaped the threat of starvation, but, as their newly incentivized creativity and industry were unleashed, began a new era of prosperity. Instead of being dependent on others, they produced more food than they could possibly consume and soon began trading with American Indians and other colonists, which itself unleashed a second wave of prosperity.

This turnaround was monumental. When they first arrived, Bradford was hardly some right-wing ideologue. He initially believed, as liberals do today, that their collective colony "would make them happy and flourishing - as if they were wiser than God" but he soon learned the reality that collectivism "was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort." The same holds true today.

The fundamental flaws of collectivism may be easier to mask within a group of 310 million than a group of 100 - at least temporarily - but ultimately, its harsh reality is every bit as inescapable. Still today, some of our misguided contemporaries agitate for collectivized health care, higher education or anything else that would destine us to repeat those early tragedies at Plymouth, the more recent ones of Stalin or even the Israeli kibbutz. Instead, let's take this time to relearn the complete lesson of the first Thanksgiving: Charity is noble, and capitalism works. Let's teach it to our children. And let's give our thanks for the prosperous United States of America.

Dr. Milton R. Wolf, a Washington Times columnist, is a board-certified diagnostic radiologist and President Obama's cousin. He blogs at miltonwolf.com.

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