Thanksgiving is the quintessential celebration of capitalism’s triumph over collectivism. While this fact may not be entirely evident in the way most people celebrate Thanksgiving – by giving thanks to God or whomever you wish for an abundance of material and immaterial possessions – everything about this holiday since its inception is about praising capitalism.
The story of Thanksgiving is one most Americans know well. The revisionist narrative of Thanksgiving’s origin – championed because it substitutes the capitalist nature of Thanksgiving for a fabricated altruistic one – goes something like this: The Pilgrims suffered immensely the first few years due to poor harvests, but in 1623 with the help of Wampanoag Indians they miraculously reaped a bountiful harvest and had a glorious feast to celebrate.
This conception of Thanksgiving, however, could not be further from the truth.
Two centuries before the Communist Manifesto was published, English Pilgrims sailed across the Atlantic to escape religious persecution at the hands of what they perceived as a greedy, materialistic society. Their goal was to erect a New Jerusalem based on religious devotion and communal altruism where all labor and fruits of labor would be shared, and when they landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 they did just that.
The Pilgrims originally designed their colony based as a socialist utopia reminiscent of that in Plato’s Republic – all work was done on a collective basis with near complete disregard of private property or self-interest. If you think this description is extreme, consider that in Plymouth producing food exclusively for one’s self or family was strictly forbidden.
The true account of what happened comes from the diaries of Governor William Bradford, leader of Plymouth colony at the time. His writings reflect the initial desire of setting up the collectivist model and the subsequent reforms that saved the colony from complete implosion.
Plymouth Colony suffered its first few years and nearly failed because of one reason and one reason only: the lack of economic incentives in a collectivist economic system.
Whatever minimal goods and food the Pilgrims had were distributed equally to everybody, regardless of how hard any individual worked. Because there was no incentive to be productive, efficient, and innovative, many colonists were late to work and had poor work ethic. Those who did work hard didn’t receive rewards proportionate to their input of work, which inclined more and more people to work less and less.
Bradford’s early writing exemplifies the socialist fallacy of altruism begetting equality and happiness: “the taking away of property, and bringing in community into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing.”
So, instead of achieving this socialist utopia, many colonists realized that by doing nothing they still received rations equal to those who did work. One needn’t look further than the history of the Soviet Union or to the present of North Korea and Cuba to see this economic phenomenon in action.
The result of this collectivist economic model was that, in the first year alone, half of the Pilgrims died or returned to England. By two years end, only a fraction of the Pilgrims managed to ward off starvation.
The bountiful harvest of 1623, however, was not the result of a fortuitous miracle or exclusively because of the aid of the Wampanoag people. Rather, the rapid transformation from squalor and hunger to grandiose feasts was due to the colony’s leadership decision to introduce free market reforms.
Bradford described the positive effects of introducing private family plots and free market economic incentives:
“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 then otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use….”
With these reforms, free-loaders no longer prospered under the “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” type of Marxist economic philosophy. Those who worked hard exclusively to advance their self-interest (or family’s interest) benefitted proportionately from their labor by having enough food for sustenance and trade. Though Adam Smith would write The Wealth of Nations a 150 years later, his Invisible Hand theory of free markets – where everyone benefits from everybody else pursuing their own economic self-interests because of the overall abundance of output and commerce – played out in Plymouth in 1623.
The result of this economic experiment was that, in just one year, so much food was harvested that there was enough for a grand feast, one which we have come today to celebrate today as Thanksgiving.
When you finally get home this Thanksgiving and sit with your family at the dinner table with plates filled with food, say and pray what you want to, but don’t fall victim to revisionist, altruistic stigma of this holiday. Thanksgiving is really about praising capitalism, free markets, private property, and pursuing one’s self-interest – and when they are allowed to prosper free from government interference, it’s the difference between starving and stuffing ourselves silly.