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Thanksgiving and "The Tragedy of the Commons"

We might do well to remember the first Thanksgiving at the Plymouth Colony was only possible because they abandoned the failed socialist model for a community and adopted property rights and responsibilities instead. John Stossel in his Creators' Syndicate column:

When the Pilgrims first settled the Plymouth Colony, they organized their farm economy along communal lines. The goal was to share everything equally, work and produce.

They nearly all starved.

Why? When people can get the same return with a small amount of effort as with a large amount, most people will make little effort. Plymouth settlers faked illness rather than working the common property. Some even stole, despite their Puritan convictions. Total production was too meager to support the population, and famine resulted. Some ate rats, dogs, horses and cats. This went on for two years.

"So as it well appeared that famine must still ensue the next year also, if not some way prevented," wrote Gov. William Bradford in his diary. The colonists, he said, "began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length after much debate of things, [I] (with the advice of the chiefest among them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves. ... And so assigned to every family a parcel of land."

The people of Plymouth moved from socialism to private farming. The results were dramatic.

"This had very good success," Bradford wrote, "for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. ... 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. ... "

Read it all at the link above. The Jamestown Colony had a similar experience. Sharing is a good and noble and moral thing; we ought not, however, forget the best way to create a bounty to be shared is through individual freedom and effort.

Happy Thanksgiving!


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Comments (20)

Stossel makes me laugh. I'... (Below threshold)

Stossel makes me laugh. I'm sure this is what he thought: "well, it was a tragedy. And it involved something common. So I guess that means it was a tragedy of the commons."

What a maroon. Here's wikipedia on the tragedy of the commons, by the by. You can see it's pretty much the exact opposite of what Stossel describes (which is about the underutilization of a common resource; tragedy of the commons is the overutilization, or exploitation, of a common resource).

It's always good for a chuckle when righties try to talk about economics.

Sorry, <a href="http://en.w... (Below threshold)

Sorry, here's that wiki link.

Happy thanksgiving! Each of us has plenty to be thankful for (we're all smarter than John Stossel, for starters!)

I like old Stossel, despite... (Below threshold)

I like old Stossel, despite his libertarian view on drugs. Some clarity informed by history.

Which Dims are doomed to repeat, if they have their way.

jp, you missed it. There w... (Below threshold)

jp, you missed it. There was an overutilitzation of a common resource. There wasn't enough of the resource (food) in relation to consumption.

That's why they starved.

F'n moron.

Stossle is probibly one of ... (Below threshold)
Spurwing Plover:

Stossle is probibly one of the few honest journalists around its good he is there

I understand, Mitchell. If... (Below threshold)

I understand, Mitchell. If true, his narrative would be interesting history. I just thought it was funny that Stossel decided to put on his econ professor hat and then swung and missed that badly.

I think you just wanted to ... (Below threshold)
Martin A. Knight:

I think you just wanted to snark at Stossel and basically you swung and you missed. I fail to see where he did in so far as the common resource i.e. food did not just fall out of the sky.

The Tragedy of the Commons is just as much about the inevitable individual failure to maximize the availability of a common resource as it is about the overutilization of that same resource. Both go together.

The only way your snark works is if you split them just so you can pretend that you're smarter than the guy who got it right.

Although, considering that Leftist economic policy is predicated on the supposition that incentives can be divorced from productivity, I'm not surprised ...

No, Martin, actually the tr... (Below threshold)

No, Martin, actually the tragedy of the commons is a specific economic concept, not a blank phrase for which you can invent meanings that you like.

According this:<bloc... (Below threshold)

According this:

A communistic system of labor, adopted for seven years, was abandoned in 1623 by Bradford because it was retarding agriculture, and land was parceled out to each family. A well-managed fur trade enabled the colony to liquidate (1627) its debt to the London merchants who had backed the venture. The colony, which developed into a quasi-theocracy, expanded slowly due to the infertility of the land and the lack of a staple moneymaking crop.


It's too bad the people of Russia didn't study
american history, they might have learned something.

(FYI, the economic concept ... (Below threshold)

(FYI, the economic concept Stossel furrowed his heavy, sloping brow to come up with wasn't the tragedy of the commons but the problem of free-riders.)

Yes, free-riders, the votin... (Below threshold)
civildisobedience Author Profile Page:

Yes, free-riders, the voting class democrats pander to most. Like healthcare for children in middle class families, rent controls for the wealthy or unearned benefits for illegals. Nothing destroys socialist solutions in the long run like basic human behavior and pandering liberals.

To the contrary, civildisob... (Below threshold)

To the contrary, civildisobedience, the problem with the pilgrims were that they were too christian and not liberal enough. The former assume humanity is full of good will if saved by Jesus, the latter know that people are, by nature, out for their own. Hence we regulate, and by doing so have created the most prosperous nation in the history of the world.

Nope."Tha... (Below threshold)
Martin A. Knight:


"That which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it."

From the same WiKi link which was cited in the Stossel piece ... which, ironically, you cited to prove that Stossel didn't know what he was talking about.

The Tragedy of the Commons is a specific economic concept, yes, but from all indications, it is you who does not understand it. Unless you're only pretending it says nothing about the care of common resources and only concentrates on their utilization.

jpe<p... (Below threshold)


the problem with the pilgrims were that they were too christian and not liberal enough. The former assume humanity is full of good will if saved by Jesus, the latter know that people are, by nature, out for their own.

You are painting with a very broad brush here: your attempt to infuse the concept of government regulation as we know it today into a historical period will not fit with the then complexity of Protestantism, doctrine and the transition of pilgrims (who were in fact Puritans)to organized colonizers. The regulator the Pilgrims fled then was the Church of England. We have prospered because of individual initiative and religious freedom, not solely as the result of regulation. Government regulation is a necessary burden on a freely functioning economy and society, but it is by no means the reason we are, to use your words, "the most prosperous nation in the history of the world"

Here's some interesting reading:


"That all persons call the ... (Below threshold)

"That all persons call the same thing mine in the sense in which each does so may be a fine thing, but it is impracticable; or if the words are taken in the other sense, such a unity in no way conduces to harmony. And there is another objection to the proposal. For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few."

PLease, do tell me exactly how this is NOT relevant?

Yes, what we need is for go... (Below threshold)
Dave W:

Yes, what we need is for government to squash personal rights and responsibilities and hand all ownership of everything. It worked so amazingly well in the Soviet Union!!

Collectivism will never work. The only way collectivism, communism or socialism could or will ever work is if you have an ENTIRE populace of non-thinking, mind-numbed robots that hang on every word of an elite ruling class. Gives a little insight into what liberals think this country is full of right? Also gives a little insight into what typical liberal voters are, right?

Stossel's brief little arti... (Below threshold)
ryan a:

Stossel's brief little article about the Plymouth Colony is a joke. It does nothing more than oversimplify history in order to support his ideas about contemporary politics and economics.

To pretend that the success of those early settlers simply hinged on their economic philosophies is to ignore the details of history. The difficulties that the Plymouth colonists faced had to do with the fact that they came to the Americas and settled in a new land without being completely equipped, let alone knowledgeable of the local ecosystems. They starved because of the ways they were trying to raise their crops, because of a lack of supplies, and because of harsh winter conditions, among other things.

It's not like they just switched to private ownership of lands and everything was rosy after that. Those settlers benefited not only from learning how Native Americans exploited local resources, but also from supplies that were brought in to aid them.

From an older article by Lyle Glazier:

As serious colonial scholars know, these claims that the Plymouth settlement was patterned after "apostolic communism" or after Plato's ideal commonwealth are flights of fancy which even a casual reading of Bradford's History immediately dissipates. The fulminations against ''that conceite of Plato'~," far from indicating that the Pilgrims had modeled their commonwealth on Plato's, indicates rather that Bradford, exasperated at the inefficiency of a system which threatened the Pilgrims with starvation, vilified that system in hyperbole by condemning its most famous exposition.

At issue, in reality, is the fact that the Pilgrims were forced to work toward communal goods by investors who funded the colony. Those investors forced the colonists to share all of their goods and profits communally for the first seven years, an agreement that mirrors the ways that similar forms of indentured servitude were to take.

This is not a case in which the Pilgrims were attempting some kind of early communism. Investors were more interested in building and maintaining the colony they funded, and less concerned with the successes of the colonists themselves. This was what Bradford was talking about when he is pushing for 'private employment.' He is arguing against the investors, and saying that the colonists should be allowed to work toward their own good. More than being about communism vs. private property/capitalism, this story is about exploitation and power.

However, as I already wrote above, the success of the colony was dependent on much more than this.

John Stossel takes this complicated historical situation and boils it down to this:

What private property does -- as the Pilgrims discovered -- is connect effort to reward, creating an incentive for people to produce far more. Then, if there's a free market, people will trade their surpluses to others for the things they lack. Mutual exchange for mutual benefit makes the community richer.

The colony did not survive, as Stossel seems to be suggesting, by a simple change from communal land tenure to private ownership. The colonists had to deal not only with the exploitation of the investors, but also harsh winter conditions, lack of resources, malnutrition, disease, and inexperience in a new land.

Stossel writes:

The people of Plymouth moved from socialism to private farming. The results were dramatic.

This is completely wrong. They were not moving from socialism to private farming, but instead from a situation of control and domination into one in which they began to fight for greater autonomy and self-determination. The 'dramatic results' ensued when this autonomy combined with the addition of Native American subsistence techniques, trade relationships, etc.

And Stossel's use of "The Tragedy of the Commons" is pretty off base as well. That idea is more about the overexploitation of resources, in which individuals will take as much as they can without considering larger effects of their actions. In the Plymouth Colony case, people were being forced to work in a manner, by contract, that wasn't effective. There weren't these plentiful communal resources that were being overused/abused. There was a decided LACK of resources, and people were dying because of that.

It's pretty sloppy when writers take history, boil it down, and then re-present it in a dumbed down version to support their political views--which is what Stossel has clearly done here.

Stossel also makes the fatal mistake of taking Bradford at his word, without considering any of the possible limitations to his texts. It's not as if Bradford, as the governor, was free from political agendas.

But then again, who is?

Why is it that no Lefty see... (Below threshold)
Martin A. Knight:

Why is it that no Lefty seems capable of understanding the connection between the lack of resources and the fact that the sharing of those resources made no distinction between the deserving (hard workers) and undeserving (slackers)?

This would always create a disincentive for work, which of course would lead to a lack of resources for want of the effort to produce.

In the end, ryan's long post, apparently intended to shoot holes in Stossel's story, actually doesn't contradict Stossel main point at all. Ultimately, it doesn't matter who or what's idea it was to split resources communally - it still rendered the hard worker equal to the laggard ... with predictable disastrous consequences.

And besides, a system where the bulk of the produce is taken by some authority, and the rest is split equally irrespective of actual work? Sounds like practically every socialist "paradise" I've heard.

I was SUPPORTING Stossel.<b... (Below threshold)

I was SUPPORTING Stossel.
Not against him.

Martin:In the e... (Below threshold)
ryan a:


In the end, ryan's long post, apparently intended to shoot holes in Stossel's story, actually doesn't contradict Stossel main point at all.

Stossel pretends that the imposed communal land system of the Plymouth Colony was the main factor which was holding them back. THAT is a massive oversimplification of what was really happening.

Stossel writes a nice little fable in which a system of private ownership saves the starving Pilgrims. There was a little more to it than that (weather, no access to resources, disease, lack of knowledge of local environment, etc).

He is using history--poorly--to support a contemporary political position. That's fine and all, but he should at least attempt to look at what was actually happening. The difficulties of the colony were due MULTIPLE factors, not one, as Stossel insinuates. That pretty much shoots his argument in the foot.






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