You probably think communism is the political system that Marxist philosophy brought about. But communism was tried in America as early as 1620 when the first pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts Bay. Karl Marx’s Das Kapital was still 247 years in the future, being first published in 1867. The Pilgrims wanted a system, under the leadership of Pylmounth Colony Governor William Bradford, that rested on a foundation of communal sharing and social altruism. They embarked upon an experiment that would be recgonized today as communism in its most ideal form, i.e., without a dictator like Joe Stalin or Fidel Castro, with no show trials, mass executions or mass starvation. The Pilgrims envisioned a communism like the one in Plato’s Republic. All would work and share in common. There would be no private property. All would subordinate their self interest for the common good, what present day liberals like to call the “greater good.”
It failed miserably. None of the most heinous trappings of a dictatorial government were present, but starvation happened anyway. Half the Pilgrims were dead after the first two years of their arrival in the new world.
William Bradford, a truly well-intentioned man unlike all communist leaders the world over since, saw what was wrong and set about changing it. He saw the need for real hope and change unlike the phony-baloney-rapacious power grabs that pass for “good government” in today’s America among politicans of a particular political party.
In Bradford’s own words,
For the young men that were able and fit for labor and service did repine¹ that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children, without recompense. The strong, or men of parts, had no more division of food, clothes, etc. then he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labor, and food, clothes, etc. with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignant and disrespect unto them. And for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc. they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could their husbands brook it.
Giving up a part of the fruits of one’s own labor so that others who labor less may share goes against God-given human nature. Such a command generates disincentive to work and resentment toward those who are getting something for nothing. Since the 17th Century much social science research and plain common sense has established that human beings are willing to share with others, but only when two conditions are first met: The sharing must be voluntary and the misfortune of the recipients of the largess must be shown to have come to them through no fault of their own.
The requirement of voluntariness is crucial because it allows each donor to give ony an amount that does not place an undue burden upon him, and it allows him to see that he are not alone, that others are similarly participating. The worthiness and gratitude of the recipient is also an important element of voluntary sharing. These elements eliminate the resentment we feel when we are required to give what we don’t want to give, either because we need it for ourselves or the recipient takes it as his due rather than as a gift for which he should be thankful. “Spreading the wealth” is not an incentive to give, but to resist.
Every Thanksgiving dinner in America this week probably involved voluntary sharing on the basis described above, and in most cases resulted in a good time had by all.
The changes made by Governor Bradford consisted of the introduction of private property rights, setting aside a plot of land to each family for them to farm, and the right of the individual families to keep the fruits of their own labor. This had an immediate salutary effect, in Bradford’s words:
And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end . . .This had a very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little-ones with them to set corn, which before would alledge weakness, and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.
A bounty of food was produced and even created surpluses which they could freely exchange with others to their mutual benefit. Anyone with political power who wants to see people freely share and exchange to the benefit of all should do every thing in their power to assure the freedom of the people to do so. While there will inevitably be some whose self-centered stinginess pushes them in a different direction, any attempt to apply force will always backfire and result in less, not more sharing. For a government to try to “get even” with rich tightwads who hoard their wealth is to demonstrate the wisdom of the epigram, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” The so-called “Robber Barons” of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries amassed enormous fortunes and the majority of them became the greatest titans of philanthropy who ever lived.
William Bradford wisely saw that forced altrusim and collectivism ran against human nature. If humans are to prosper and flourish their government must be willing to allow them to live by their natural instincts. From Bradford’s journal:
The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years, and that amongst the Godly and sober men, may well convince of the vanity and conceit of Plato’s and other ancients; — that the taking away of property, and bringing into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed confusion and discontent, and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.
Private property is essential to freedom, which is essential to human flourishing. Happy Thanksgiving.