America’s First Experiment with Socialism

by Burt on August 24, 2009

Current polls seem to suggest that between 20 and 25 percent of Americans prefer socialism to capitalism. What’s interesting is that the Pilgrims who settled America in 1620 had some of the same socialist ideas. After arriving on the Mayflower, the Pilgrims (sometimes called separatists) decided to practice socialized agriculture. They took the available cleared land and had the whole community (of about 100 settlers) work the land and divide the profits as each family (or individual) had a need.

The result was disaster–widespread starvation occurred and only help from some nearby Indians kept the community going. As Governor William Bradford reported, without private property, the Pilgrims became lazy and selfish. Young men complained “that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak. . . .”

Next year Governor Bradford, after seeking advice from leading Pilgrims, “assigned to every family a parcel of land.” Now America had a system of private property. What happened? According to Bradford, “This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious.” The result was “much more corn was planted” 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.” He describes all this in his book entitled Of Plymouth Plantation.

If socialism can’t work in a close-knit Super-Christian community, it probably can’t work anywhere. But the larger point is that our early Americans tried socialism; it didn’t work and they made a quick adjustment to free markets. That did work and the private property order became part of American history.

Americans today are like the Pilgrims in this way: after experimenting with stimulus packages and bailouts, we are beginning to ask serious questions about socialized medicine. Next year we may be ready to try free markets.

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