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How Private Property Rights Saved the Pilgrims from Starvation - An Underappreciated Thanksgiving Lesson:

Thanksgiving may be over. But it's not too late to learn one of the less-appreciated lessons of the First Thanksgiving back in 1621. As economist Benjamin Powell explains, the Pilgrims were saved from starvation because they replaced collectivism with private property rights:

Many people believe that after suffering through a severe winter, the Pilgrims' food shortages were resolved the following spring when the Native Americans taught them to plant corn and a Thanksgiving celebration resulted. In fact, the pilgrims continued to face chronic food shortages for three years until the harvest of 1623. Bad weather or lack of farming knowledge did not cause the pilgrims' shortages. Bad economic incentives did.

In 1620 Plymouth Plantation was founded with a system of communal property rights. Food and supplies were held in common and then distributed based on equality and need as determined by Plantation officials. People received the same rations whether or not they contributed to producing the food, and residents were forbidden from producing their own food. Governor William Bradford, in his 1647 history, Of Plymouth Plantation, wrote that this system was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. The problem was that young men, that were most able and fit for labour, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men's wives and children without any recompense. Because of the poor incentives, little food was produced.

Faced with potential starvation in the spring of 1623, the colony decided to implement a new economic system. Every family was assigned a private parcel of land. They could then keep all they grew for themselves, but now they alone were responsible for feeding themselves. While not a complete private property system, the move away from communal ownership had dramatic results.

This change, Bradford wrote, had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. Giving people economic incentives changed their behavior. Once the new system of property rights was in place, the women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability.

Once the Pilgrims in the Plymouth Plantation abandoned their communal economic system and adopted one with greater individual property rights, they never again faced the starvation and food shortages of the first three years. It was only after allowing greater property rights that they could feast without worrying that famine was just around the corner.

UPDATE: It's worth noting that, contrary to some modern mythology, Native American tribes that relied on agriculture also usually used private property rights to stimulate production. Claims that native peoples were opposed to private property rights or had no conception of such a thing until the Europeans came, are for the most part PC myths.

UPDATE #2: For a more detailed account of the role of property rights in saving the Pilgrims, see this 1999 article by Tom Bethell.

MCM (mail):
So shouldn't the post be entitled "How Government Redistribution of Land Saved the Pilgrims"?
12.1.2008 6:55pm
FWB (mail):
http://www.nationalcenter.org/Pilgrims.html

Tiocfaidh ár lá!
12.1.2008 6:57pm
Smokey:
We won't starve like the communal Pilgrims, but every step we take toward 'from each according to his ability' reduces out national standard of living from what it would otherwise have been.

It should also be remembered that the Pilgrims, unlike the Puritans, made no lasting impression on American society. They faded away, while the Puritans prospered.

The Puritans believed that the fruits of labor should go to the individual that produced. They were anti-communal/communist.

They had the right idea.
12.1.2008 6:58pm
Allan (mail):
I wonder what would have happened if the community needed more grazing land and less crop land. Presumably, the community would have taken some of the privately farmed land and substituted with other land of equal value in a different location.

Kelo in the 17th century?
12.1.2008 6:59pm
Ilya Somin:
So shouldn't the post be entitled "How Government Redistribution of Land Saved the Pilgrims"?

If privatization of government-owned land counts as "redistribution," sure. By that standard, of course, the abolition of communism in eastern Europe was also an example of "redistribution."
12.1.2008 7:00pm
Ilya Somin:
I wonder what would have happened if the community needed more grazing land and less crop land. Presumably, the community would have taken some of the privately farmed land and substituted with other land of equal value in a different location.

Kelo in the 17th century?


Private owners could convert their land from farming to grazing, had there been a greater demand for the latter. No need for Kelo-style takings to accomplish that.
12.1.2008 7:04pm
MCM (mail):
Professor Somin: So how'd the Pilgrims decide who got what land? Did they auction it off or something?
12.1.2008 7:14pm
Trevor Morrison (mail):
And what was it that had been saving the Native Americans from starvation all along?
12.1.2008 7:15pm
Ilya Somin:
Professor Somin: So how'd the Pilgrims decide who got what land? Did they auction it off or something?

As I understand it, every family got an equal share. However, it was still a case of privatization of government-owned resources. Auctions are not the only possible privatization strategy.
12.1.2008 7:16pm
Ilya Somin:
And what was it that had been saving the Native Americans from starvation all along?

Some of them were hunter-gatherers (i.e. - they didn't rely on agriculture as their primary source of food). Others had private property rights systems of their own. Native tribes that did engage in extensive land cultivation were especially likely to have private property systems.
12.1.2008 7:18pm
MCM (mail):
Professor Somin: So the privatization strategy used here was that each social unit was assigned what they needed?
12.1.2008 7:22pm
Ilya Somin:
Professor Somin: So the privatization strategy used here was that each social unit was assigned what they needed?

In a word, no.
12.1.2008 7:28pm
Elliot123 (mail):
"If privatization of government-owned land counts as "redistribution," sure. By that standard, of course, the abolition of communism in eastern Europe was also an example of "redistribution."

It would be similar to privatizing all the federal land in the US west and Alaska.
12.1.2008 7:33pm
autolykos:

It would be similar to privatizing all the federal land in the US west and Alaska.


Or the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889.

Land in colonial America at the time of the pilgrims wasn't exactly a scarce resource (at least not as far as the pilgrims were concerned), so it was easy to just give everyone as much as they could use (it's not like a family of the time could have realistically farmed 1,000 acres). When the resource being privatized is scarce, there are a variety of ways allocating it (lottery, auction, queueing, FITFIR, etc.).
12.1.2008 7:42pm
Anon Y. Mous:

Claims that native peoples were opposed to private property rights or had no conception of such a thing until the Europeans came, are for the most part PC myths.

Kind of ironic that the politically correct point of view has the American Indians as ignorant of the concept of private property rights until the idea was introduced by white Europeans.
12.1.2008 7:42pm
MCM (mail):
Professor Somin: I'm confused then. According to the article you linked, "[Bradford] assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number."

What is the rationale for giving larger families more land if not that they need it more than smaller families?
12.1.2008 7:47pm
Ilya Somin:
Professor Somin: I'm confused then. According to the article you linked, "[Bradford] assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number."

What is the rationale for giving larger families more land if not that they need it more than smaller families?


A larger family can more effectively work a larger plot. Remember this was an age when women and children often worked in the fields along with their men.
12.1.2008 7:48pm
Allan Walstad (mail):
Anybody know what public school history books say about this, if anything?
12.1.2008 7:49pm
Tony Tutins (mail):
I heard this first on Paul Harvey News, the Saturday before Thanksgiving, I think.
12.1.2008 7:53pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
Claims that native peoples were opposed to private property rights or had no conception of such a thing until the Europeans came, are for the most part PC myths.

This of course, at least as far as the point Ilya is trying to make, is unmitigated bullshit. As far as we can tell, all of the pre-European societies in the Americas were "socialist", at least in the sense that a true libertarian would consider it. Private ownership of land was indeed an alien concept (although to be fair, it was a relatively new concept even in Europe in the fifteenth century). Tribal societies almost always work on a collective level, especially in societies where there are no domestic animals.

It is also funny that there was any land for the pilgrims to distribute. Who exactly did the Pilgrims buy this land from?
12.1.2008 8:00pm
q:

Professor Somin: So how'd the Pilgrims decide who got what land? Did they auction it off or something?

Who cares? The point of the article is how private property rights created incentives to avoid the externality problems of collective ownership. How the land was allocated is unimportant; obviously the government, as title holder, would be the one doing it.
12.1.2008 8:01pm
Ilya Somin:
Claims that native peoples were opposed to private property rights or had no conception of such a thing until the Europeans came, are for the most part PC myths.

This of course, at least as far as the point Ilya is trying to make, is unmitigated bullshit. As far as we can tell, all of the pre-European societies in the Americas were "socialist", at least in the sense that a true libertarian would consider it. Private ownership of land was indeed an alien concept (although to be fair, it was a relatively new concept even in Europe in the fifteenth century). Tribal societies almost always work on a collective level, especially in societies where there are no domestic animals.

This is simply false, both as to Pre-Columbian America and pre-15th century Europe. Lots of tribal societies have had private property in the sense that one person or one family controlled a given piece of land and had the right to exclude others, transfer ownership, and so on.
12.1.2008 8:02pm
Jake LaRow (mail):
Ilya and J.F.-

How about some citations to resolve the dispute?
12.1.2008 8:09pm
MCM (mail):
Professor Somin: I'm confused, because it would seem that the land was allocated per capita, including children too young to work, but who required food regardless. Are you saying the numbers Bradford used excluded those unable to work?
12.1.2008 8:10pm
Ilya Somin:
Ilya and J.F.-

How about some citations to resolve the dispute?


The link I posted in the update has many citations to sources on Native Americans and property rights. J.F.'s claim that there was no private property in pre-15th century Europe hardly needs any refutation, given its obvious falsehood. However, virtually any history of the ancient world will note in passing that there was private property in ancient Greece, Rome, Sumer, and so on. The Bible often mentions private property in ancient Israel. The institution of private property in Europe long predates the 15th century.
12.1.2008 8:15pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
How about some citations to resolve the dispute?


How about "1491, New Revelations of America before Columbus" or any modern scholarly research on pre-European native American society.

Heck, even Ilya's own damn native country didn't have much individual ownership of land before the beginning of the twentieth century.
12.1.2008 8:16pm
Matt_T:
Kind of ironic that the politically correct point of view has the American Indians as ignorant of the concept of private property rights until the idea was introduced by white Europeans.

Not if you believe, as a surprising component of the PC left does, that private property and capitalism are the root of all evil.
12.1.2008 8:23pm
Jake LaRow (mail):
J.F.-

So what say you about the link above? Do you have problems with PERC as an unbiased source? The quote at the top of their page "Improving Environmental Quality Through Markets" would imply a certain view point, but what exactly is your issue with that work?

I am no expert here, I like to read the dialogue to enrich my own understanding of conflicting and opposing view points.
12.1.2008 8:23pm
q:
What's up with the meta-argument? Does private property rights need some long historical use to be legitimate? I find such a notion strange given how poor the world was prior to the 20th century, and magnitudes more so prior to the 19th century.
12.1.2008 8:24pm
Ilya Somin:
Heck, even Ilya's own damn native country didn't have much individual ownership of land before the beginning of the twentieth century.

A lot depends on what is meant by "much." However, there were lots of big private landowners in czarist Russia long before the 20th century. They were the people who owned the serfs, for example. Free peasants also had private land. It is true, however, that Russia had weaker and less extensive property rights than most of the rest of Europe, a point Richard Pipes emphasized in Russia Under the Old Regime, and other works. This, however, does not justify J.F.'s claim that there was no private property in Europe as a whole until the 15th century.
12.1.2008 8:27pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
The institution of private property in Europe long predates the 15th century.


Of course it wasn't. In most of Europe, and in your native Russia well into the nineteenth century, all land was ultimately owned by the sovereign. Even after the serfs were emancipated in Russia, land was held communally at the village level until land reform was instituted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (and this was not even complete at the time of the Revolution).


Who cares? The point of the article is how private property rights created incentives to avoid the externality problems of collective ownership.

Of course it matters. It is the height of silliness to claim that "private property" can be allocated just because the King claimed some land without any regard for the prior owners. If you are such a believer in absolute private property rights, what of the rights of the prior owners?
12.1.2008 8:29pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
I believe it was Mann in his previously mentioned "1491" who said the Pilgrims took over farm land already broken, which is to say deforested, from Indians dead from smallpox contracted from shipwrecked French fishermen.
Having to start farming with old-growth forest would have been difficult, and considering how tough they had it anyway, probably would have been the straw.
12.1.2008 8:35pm
q:

Of course it matters. It is the height of silliness to claim that "private property" can be allocated just because the King claimed some land without any regard for the prior owners. If you are such a believer in absolute private property rights, what of the rights of the prior owners?

There's a time and a place to discuss the incentives of property holders within a regime of eminent domain. But not now or here, because eminent domain is not involved with this Pilgrim story. What happened before the Pilgrims claimed their land is irrelevant to the point that subsequently, private property rights cured the externality defects of collective ownership.
12.1.2008 8:35pm
Smokey:
J.F. Thomas:
As far as we I can tell, all of the pre-European societies in the Americas were "socialist", at least in the sense that a true libertarian would consider it.
So you're saying that the stone age Native Americans were as un-progressive in their societies as they were in inventing the wheel?

I'm *shocked* that a liberal would believe something like that...

...well, not really. The Nanny State will take care of those backward folks. Right?
12.1.2008 8:35pm
MCM (mail):
q:

"I find such a notion strange given how poor the world was prior to the 20th century, and magnitudes more so prior to the 19th century."

I think this is an excellent argument for the power of exponentially-increasing iterative technological advance, not changes in property rights.
12.1.2008 8:35pm
q:
By the way, "height of silliness"? Please, spare me.
12.1.2008 8:36pm
q:

q:

"I find such a notion strange given how poor the world was prior to the 20th century, and magnitudes more so prior to the 19th century."

I think this is an excellent argument for the power of exponentially-increasing iterative technological advance, not changes in property rights.

Perhaps. That statement wasn't so much as an argument for property rights, but rather an argument against the notion that policies need some long-time historical use to be legitimate. I'd rather argue things on their merits.
12.1.2008 8:37pm
MCM (mail):
"Perhaps. That statement wasn't so much as an argument for property rights, but rather an argument against the notion that policies need some long-time historical use to be legitimate. I'd rather argue things on their merits."

I think the argument that JF Thomas was making was that if the King or Governor can simply take a bunch of land and dole it out to people, that doesn't say much for their system of private property.
12.1.2008 8:46pm
Ilya Somin:
The institution of private property in Europe long predates the 15th century.


Of course it wasn't. In most of Europe, and in your native Russia well into the nineteenth century, all land was ultimately owned by the sovereign. Even after the serfs were emancipated in Russia, land was held communally at the village level until land reform was instituted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (and this was not even complete at the time of the Revolution).

This is completely false as respects "most of Europe" and mostly false as to Russia. In the rest of Europe, private property developed out of feudalism, a system in which the sovereign did NOT own all the land, but could demand service (usually military) from those who did. Nonetheless, private ownership was widely recognized in ancient and medieval Europe, both before and after the feudal era.


In Russia, the people who owned the serfs before emancipation also had private property rights to the land they lived on. So too did those free peasants who weren't serfs. It is true that after emancipation the former serfs mostly had only communal property. But this doesn't mean that private land ownership was unknown in Russian society overall. Nobles, merchants, former serf-owners and many others all owned land as private property, in much the same way as Westerners did.
12.1.2008 8:46pm
Ilya Somin:
I believe it was Mann in his previously mentioned "1491" who said the Pilgrims took over farm land already broken, which is to say deforested, from Indians dead from smallpox contracted from shipwrecked French fishermen.

Mann also describes lots of Indian societies with private property. He actually claims that such societies were MORE widespread and on a larger scale than previous scholars had believed.
12.1.2008 8:47pm
q:

I think the argument that JF Thomas was making was that if the King or Governor can simply take a bunch of land and dole it out to people, that doesn't say much for their system of private property.

Maybe, maybe not (our current government and most governments can certainly do that). But, what does that have to do with the Pilgrims solving their resource issues through private property rights, however weakened they may be from the prospect of eminent domain? (And it seems to me the prospect wasn't so dreary as to completely deter "investment" in the land.)
12.1.2008 8:52pm
anonymous academic (mail):
the same story is told in
Rush Limbaugh's book, "See, I Told You So", 1993
chapter six, page 70

but how many of you have read either of Rush's best-sellers?
12.1.2008 8:58pm
Lily (mail):

Who, exactly, did they take it from? You tell me. As I understand it, the land was held by the Plymouth Plantation at that time, and there does not appear to be evidence that their claim was disputed. The Planatation leaders later decided to divvy it up in an effort to incent people to work.

I think you're tying move away from the main point of the story in an effort to obfuscate because you don't like the conclusion.
12.1.2008 9:02pm
Xanthippas (mail) (www):

Not if you believe, as a surprising component of the PC left does, that private property and capitalism are the root of all evil.


Well actually, as even Somin's link to PERC demonstrates, it was white settlers and the American government that sought to first diminish the idea of Native property rights. If the Natives didn't value their land, then obviously it could be taken from them for less, or nothing at all.


I'm *shocked* that a liberal would believe something like that...

...well, not really. The Nanny State will take care of those backward folks. Right?


I can say with utmost confidence that liberals have done considerably more for Natives than conservatives have, and it's quite silly to argue that conservatives have long had some sort of long-standing respect for the integrity of Native peoples.
12.1.2008 9:06pm
Lily (mail):
"I can say with utmost confidence that liberals have done considerably more for Natives than conservatives have, and it's quite silly to argue that conservatives have long had some sort of long-standing respect for the integrity of Native peoples"

Really? I understand that it was liberals who, in their attempt to 'help' the Native American tribes, forced them to drop their languages, religions and native dress in an effort to help them adapt to their new world. Native Amercian children were taken from their tribes and brought to 'bording schools' and not allowed to speak their own languages or pratice their own culture. For their own good, of course.
12.1.2008 9:14pm
MCM (mail):
"Maybe, maybe not (our current government and most governments can certainly do that). But, what does that have to do with the Pilgrims solving their resource issues through private property rights, however weakened they may be from the prospect of eminent domain? (And it seems to me the prospect wasn't so dreary as to completely deter "investment" in the land.)"

Certainly, because the alternative was starvation.

However, I think it is too convenient to overlook how the property was privatized. Land was distributed per capita first, so that people could then work to their own profit. Everyone was given the ability to produce, though. I don't think that's a lesson that the Hoover Institution or Professor Somin places any emphasis on, however.
12.1.2008 9:15pm
John (mail):
I think some of the confusion here arises from different, but unstated, concepts of what it is to "own" something. In the societies I'm aware of, the mere fact that a king or government can take what it wants (e.g., in the U.S. to a large extent) is not inconsistent with private ownership of property as it is conventionally understood.
12.1.2008 9:19pm
Lily (mail):
Again, the POINT of the story is that people need incentives to work. Too many people will let others carry the burden if they can get away with it. They may not even realize they're doing this - they'll have lots of reasons why they can't work as hard, just ask them. However, when given no other option, they'll work. Starvation is a strong motivation. The leaders on site at the Plymouth Plantation were insightful and created solutions that lead the group to prosperity. Good for them.

The property rights is a side issue here.
12.1.2008 9:30pm
MCM (mail):
Lily, I think you are confused. Property rights ARE the incentive to work.
12.1.2008 9:52pm
Lily (mail):
No, avoidance of starvation was the motivation at work in the 'redesigned' Plymouth. Being given a plot of land to work was the vehicle.
12.1.2008 9:55pm
karrde (mail) (www):
Thank you for posting this.

I can recall reading this episode in Bradford's Of Plimouth Plantation.

If I recall correctly, the fabled first Thanksgiving feast gets a passing mention after the long section about communal property, private property, starvation, and bounty.

At any rate, it is a rare case. The Plymouth Plantation allowed for an almost-scientifically-pure comparison of communal work vs. private ownership. The results, as indicated, favor private ownership of land for a farming community.
12.1.2008 9:59pm
David Warner:
MCM,

"I think this is an excellent argument for the power of exponentially-increasing iterative technological advance, not changes in property rights."

There is an insight waiting to be made contained in this sentence.
12.1.2008 9:59pm
MCM (mail):
David Warner: In the future, humans will live in a post-scarcity society with no need for property rights, ala Iain M. Banks?

That was a very cryptic comment... or perhaps I'm just that obtuse?
12.1.2008 10:15pm
Allan Walstad (mail):

The Plymouth Plantation allowed for an almost-scientifically-pure comparison of communal work vs. private ownership. The results, as indicated, favor private ownership of land for a farming community.

Karrde, thanks for bringing us back to the original subject. I wonder, do you or any of the other bloggers here know how this episode is treated in school textbooks these days? I'm curious.

I'll check back in about 30 minutes after my daily treadmill penance.
12.1.2008 10:32pm
John Skookum (mail):
I can say with utmost confidence that liberals have done considerably more for Natives than conservatives have, and it's quite silly to argue that conservatives have long had some sort of long-standing respect for the integrity of Native peoples.

In Arizona, the two greatest friends our tribes have had in modern times are Barry Goldwater and John McCain.
12.1.2008 10:39pm
Elliot123 (mail):
One of the most interesting things "1491" says is the European settlers encountered mile after mile of cleared but abandoned fields with no people working them. They didn't have to take the land from anybody since nobody was around. This is offered as evidence that smallpox preceeded the settlers move west. The disease took the people, so nobody owned much of the land.
12.1.2008 10:40pm
David Warner:
MCM,

"That was a very cryptic comment... or perhaps I'm just that obtuse?"

Unlikely. I'm just an Emily Dickinson fan, so it may indeed be cryptic, or oblique, as JBG calls it.

You see what you want to see.
12.1.2008 11:22pm
theobromophile (www):
I think this is an excellent argument for the power of exponentially-increasing iterative technological advance, not changes in property rights.

Those things aren't distinct, unless your definition of "property" is limited to realty and personal property. Much as the Pilgrims sought to eliminate their free rider problem by requiring people to work for their food, our intellectual property system (which is enshrined in our Constitution) also eliminates a free rider problem and encourages innovation, creativity, and investment in technology.
12.2.2008 1:12am
American Psikhushka (mail):
David Warner-

"I think this is an excellent argument for the power of exponentially-increasing iterative technological advance, not changes in property rights."

There is an insight waiting to be made contained in this sentence.


That a simple comparison of the North and South Korean economies puts the lie to that sentence? As far as I know, no one is keeping the secrets of "iterative technological advances" from the North Koreans, unless someone can tell me about a Used Textbook Embargo that I don't know about. They have the same basic ethnic background, the same basic climate, etc. Virtually the only differences are the political, economic, and property rights systems.
12.2.2008 1:14am
MCM (mail):
Those things aren't distinct, unless your definition of "property" is limited to realty and personal property. Much as the Pilgrims sought to eliminate their free rider problem by requiring people to work for their food, our intellectual property system (which is enshrined in our Constitution) also eliminates a free rider problem and encourages innovation, creativity, and investment in technology.


This is true, but it doesn't explain how technology has grown exponentially more powerful and refined over thousands of years. We make tools to make better and more powerful (and cheaper) tools and so on. Certainly our legal framework incents people to do so, but IP rights don't cause innovation any more than real property rights cause wheat to grow.

Bad legal frameworks can certainly slow innovation down, yes. There's mountains of criticism regarding our current patent rules. Regardless, advancement continues.

That a simple comparison of the North and South Korean economies puts the lie to that sentence? As far as I know, no one is keeping the secrets of "iterative technological advances" from the North Koreans, unless someone can tell me about a Used Textbook Embargo that I don't know about. They have the same basic ethnic background, the same basic climate, etc. Virtually the only differences are the political, economic, and property rights systems.


Here's the Used Textbook Embargo you missed. It was only recently lifted in regards to North Korea. But really you're missing the point, as the argument pertains to advances over thousands of years, from stone tools to now.
12.2.2008 2:02am
American Psikhushka (mail):
MCM-

...but IP rights don't cause innovation any more than real property rights cause wheat to grow.

They certainly encourage and enable innovation, especially very costly and extensive innovation. If people couldn't profit from their innovation they would tend to keep it secret, and in the case of very expensive and/or extensive innovation they might refrain from it altogether.

Here's the Used Textbook Embargo you missed. It was only recently lifted in regards to North Korea.

I was aware of that, but it doesn't prevent any number of ways they could have availed themselves to modern technology and technological advances. Let's put it this way: if they can import technologically advanced weapons and fleets of luxury cars for the dictator and political elites they could have imported technology and educational materials. The problem is that they were and are more concerned with control, propaganda, and censorship.

But really you're missing the point, as the argument pertains to advances over thousands of years, from stone tools to now.

I was responding to your quote as it was used when it was quoted. I get your original point as well, a la "Guns, Germs, and Steel".

But the point that is neglected is that property rights matter, especially when we're talking about societal wealth. The mass starvations that occurred when collectivized communal agriculture was undertaken by the Soviet Union and China are evidence of this. The stagnation, poverty, and starvation of North Korea is another data point. Technology isn't the problem there - they have modern surface to air missiles, among other things - property rights are.
12.2.2008 2:43am
MCM (mail):
Sure, and yet for decades after World War II, Soviet science was cutting-edge stuff. The Soviet Union was able to go from agrarian aristocracy to world superpower in 30 years.

Property rights certainly are important in efficiently allocating resources and generally maximizing society's ability to enrich itself.

However, I'm still not sure you have my point correctly. q said out that the farther back you go in history, the poorer people are. My point is that you don't exactly find some kind of step-by-step development in property rights that corresponds to developments in wealth. Property rights didn't start out weak in 18th century America and exponentially increase for 200 years, but for some reason wealth did.
12.2.2008 3:37am
Malvolio:
Sure, and yet for decades after World War II, Soviet science was cutting-edge stuff. The Soviet Union was able to go from agrarian aristocracy to world superpower in 30 years.
You can achieve anything you want, if you are willing to give up everything else for it. Yes, the Soviet Union was able to leverage itself into a position where it could destroy the world, and it only had to kill off a quarter its population and immiserate the rest for generations to do it.
12.2.2008 6:22am
David Warner:
MCM,

"Sure, and yet for decades after World War II, Soviet science was cutting-edge stuff."

They don't call Pete and Cathy great for nothing. Culture is indeed as important as property rights, if not more so, but when the rubber hit the road in the Cold War, it was the lack of the latter that brought the Soviet System to its knees without that cutting-edge science firing a shot.

As you note, it is the exponential power of compounding that is the key element in transformational long-term progress. Unfortunately for the Soviets, their exponent was negative, yielding decay, not growth.
12.2.2008 7:12am
Ryan Waxx (mail):
Sure, and yet for decades after World War II, Soviet science was cutting-edge stuff.


Well, if you kill off most of the population and industry of the former scientific mecca (Europe), then that makes it a lot easier to be the new cutting-edge, now doesn't it?
12.2.2008 7:53am
Smokey:
MCM:
Lily, I think you are confused. Property rights ARE the incentive to work.
Lily:
No, avoidance of starvation was the motivation at work in the 'redesigned' Plymouth. Being given a plot of land to work was the vehicle.
Isn't that splitting hairs?

The 'vehicle' to unlocking a door is a key. A 'vehicle' to living is breathing. And the 'vehicle' to national prosperity is a system of established, codified individual property rights.

The comparison of North to South Korea is on point. The only difference is in their governments. One is socialist, the other is capitalist.

The more capitalist a country is, the more prosperous it is. The other side of the coin is that there is individual inequality.

But that's the deal.
12.2.2008 7:59am
A.C.:
Is it private property or communal property if an extended family group, perhaps made up of a dozen or so related nuclear families, owns and works property? There seems to be a grey area there, one that would be likely to come up in societies made up of small, isolated groups. I'd imagine the incentive structures in a group like that would be very different from those found in a group of a dozen unrelated households.

Also, somebody above mentioned Native Americans not discovering the wheel. I had heard that they knew about the wheel and used it for toys. The obstacle to a more widespread application was the absence of draft animals.
12.2.2008 8:20am
Bill Harshaw (mail) (www):
There wasn't private ownership of land in the sense we think of today in the UK in 1600. Today "farmer" means (to urbanites) a man who owns and cultivates the land. In 1600 a "farmer" was a renter, someone who paid a fee for some right (to collect taxes, to grow crops). Yeoman farmers would have a lease, not fee simple ownership, as they "held" of some lord who "held" of the sovereign. So there were exclusionary rights,but whether the renter would be compensated for permanent improvements on the land was a long and vexed issue (which caused many to migrate in search of cheap, fee simple land).
12.2.2008 8:32am
Der Hahn (mail):

The obstacle to a more widespread application was the absence of draft animals.


Human-powered pushcarts and wheelbarrows are pretty widely used. Couple that with the fact that the NA native groups that had horses available didn't use wheeled carts either, and it doesn't seem to be logical conclusion.

I'd guess that the reason wheeled vehicles weren't widely used is more a combination of North American geography and a lifestyle that primarily used water transport for long distance movement in place of building roads.
12.2.2008 8:47am
Melancton Smith:
Apparently a toy with wheels was found amongst Central American native ruins (it might have been South American...I don't recall). The explanation given for their lack of productive use is indeed the lack of draft animals but also the unsuitability of the terrain.

Terrain would not apply to North American natives, but they also did not appear to have the complex civilization that Central and Southern American natives had (i.e. technologies such as indoor plumbing and vulcanization of rubber, etc).
12.2.2008 8:54am
Melancton Smith:
Even today we don't truly own the land that we 'own'. Land ownership today, just as under feudal lords or collectivist dictators is with the forebearance and blessings of the government.
12.2.2008 8:57am
A.C.:
Terrain clearly isn't a problem in the flat parts of North America, although it certainly would have been in mountain regions before people had the technology to blast and tunnel. But resources to make roads might have been. There's also the question of how much stuff you are trying to move. In the absence of large-scale trade or warfare, what's the cost/benefit for roads plus wheeled vehicles, vs. backpacks and sledges?
12.2.2008 9:10am
David Cay Johnston (mail) (www):
Melancton Smith seems to have made an important point not much discussed here: if you have to pay a property tax to keep "your" land or you must serve up yourself of your serfs for military service as noted by Ilya Somin do you really "own" your property? Is your ownership conditional? Or does the state ultimately own your land, allowing you to momentarily control it for a recurring charge?


Also, the linked article on Native Americans
http://www.perc.org/articles/article802.php
and whether pre-Europeans property in what is now America was private, socialized or some mixture is long on assertions, but stunningly short on hard evidence.

Maybe as with the ancient Greeks, the record is spotty and we should all exercise caution in drawing hard conclusions.
12.2.2008 9:29am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Current draft animals do not resemble their wild ancestors closely.
Wild cattle are not suitable for training, nor are wild horses (as opposed to feral horses). See zebras, for example.
It takes generations of selection for temperament, among other things, to come up with a draft animal.
At one point, German immigrants in Pennsylvania bred oxen so large that they were the biggest animals in North America since the Pleistocene die-off.
If you had started with buffalo and eaten the unsuitable ninety percent for ten or fifteen generations, you'd be on track.
A Russian researcher tried to breed silver foxes, which were farmed, to be more congenial. Considering their situation, their attitude was to be expected. Nevertheless, it would have been easier.... He managed, in not many generations, to breed more congenial silver foxes which, however, failed to mature. They were stuck in adolescence, which meant a spotted and therefore commercially unusable coat.
Point is, it didn't take long in selecting out the hard cases to come up with a substantial change.
12.2.2008 10:19am
T Gracchus (mail):
The myth that Native Americans did not have a private property system dates from the 18th century, at the latest, as perusal of early land cases shows.
12.2.2008 10:20am
Portland (mail):
Lily alluded to this, but I think the "private property triumphs" storyline ignores the facts:


The colonists hoped that the houses they built would be exempt from the division of wealth at the end of seven years; in addition, they sought two days a week in which to work on their own “particular” plots (much as collective farmers later had their own private plots in the Soviet Union). The Pilgrims would thereby avoid servitude. But the investors refused to allow these loopholes, undoubtedly worried that if the Pilgrims—three thousand miles away and beyond the reach of supervision—owned their own houses and plots, the investors would find it difficult to collect their due.


Prior to the division, all the land was privately owned -- by a corporation. That corporation mismanaged the incentives for its employees to the point that they were in danger of starvation. The employees then seized the mishandled assets of the shareholders and distributed them to the workers, who prospered.

Rather a strange story for conservatives to hallow.
12.2.2008 11:33am
Allan Walstad (mail):

Melancton Smith seems to have made an important point not much discussed here: if you have to pay a property tax to keep "your" land or you must serve up yourself of your serfs for military service as noted by Ilya Somin do you really "own" your property? Is your ownership conditional? Or does the state ultimately own your land, allowing you to momentarily control it for a recurring charge?

Interesting questions, how land originally becomes private property and how "private" it is as such. A group of (otherwise) rather hard-core anarcho libertarians that I was acquainted with some years back were actually of the opinion that landowners owe a "ground rent" to society that would pay certain communal expenses.

Still, the lesson of the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving is that by and large people work harder and more effectively for themselves and their families than they do for the collective. Apparently a hard lesson for modern-day collectivists to swallow, judging by many of the posts here.
12.2.2008 11:38am
Portland (mail):
The discussion of property rights among Native Americans has wandered quite a bit. I would love to see some sources, preferably by archaeologists and historians, not commentators on one side or another making unsupported assertions.

One thing we can assert with confidence is that within this highly diverse group speaking hundreds of languages and spread over millions of square miles there were probably a number of different ways resources were handled -- some more like our modern idea of property rights, and some less so.

My recollection (and it is a hazy one, for which I cannot cite a source, so take it for what it is) is that some Native American tribes studied have been found to have used detailed resource (oral) contracts, but contracts which were focused on the things that mattered in that particular economy; not the size and shape of a parcel of land, but the rights to the catch from a given stream or the acorn harvest, say, every other year in a particular valley.

Different societies have different ways of handling property. Every society allocates tasks and rewards. Any time a reward has been promised to you, you may be said to "own" something, under the rules of the society in question. So ownership always exists in some form. Ownership is also never an absolute. I know of no community in which the sovereign power claims no authority to direct land use on behalf of the common interest (and may in which in many do so for any reason, including selfish interest). Given these observations, I don't see much utility in the debate over who had what property rights when.
12.2.2008 11:53am
Portland (mail):

[B]y and large people work harder and more effectively for themselves and their families than they do for the collective.


No argument there. Although there is something to be said for a loyalty to the collective that inspires self-sacrifice; which is why religion and nationalism are such powerful forces (usually, one must say, for ill) in human affairs.


Apparently a hard lesson for modern-day collectivists to swallow, judging by many of the posts here.


Oh, I don't know about that. I think most collective-inclined people know central planning and rigid equality of outcomes don't work. I think the central challenge to lassiez-faire capitalism is the Scandinavian model: encourage free-market capitalism with incentives, then harness that crazy good productivity by taxing heavily to provide good education, free healthcare and modern infrastructure as well as a generous safety net for people who are not successful in the competition.

Whatever you may think of this model, it is a far cry from the ideal foil provided by the colossal failure of Soviet central planning. Modern social democracy argues, essentially, that you can still have the individual incentives needed for economic efficiency whilst blunting the extremes of want and (of necessity) wealth.
12.2.2008 12:09pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
collective-inclined people don't lean Swedish.
The centralized power is the goal. To control is the goal.
Whether it works or not in some other fashion is utterly irrelevant.
12.2.2008 12:53pm
Portland (mail):

collective-inclined people don't lean Swedish.
The centralized power is the goal. To control is the goal.
Whether it works or not in some other fashion is utterly irrelevant.


Well, now you are creating a tautology akin to the one about how atheists cannot be good citizens. If indeed you define collectivists narrowly as those who seek power and control for its own sake and are not interested in particular social ills, you are welcome to do so, but in that case very few people on the left can rightly be considered collectivists.
12.2.2008 1:05pm
American Psikhushka (mail):
Richard Aubrey-

Point is, it didn't take long in selecting out the hard cases to come up with a substantial change.

Well it's a good thing that trying to do that with humans will get you locked up for genocide:

"Perpetrators need not intend to destroy the entire group. Destruction of only part of a group (such as its educated members, or members living in one region) is also genocide."
12.2.2008 1:09pm
American Psikhushka (mail):
MCM-

Sure, and yet for decades after World War II, Soviet science was cutting-edge stuff. The Soviet Union was able to go from agrarian aristocracy to world superpower in 30 years.

Well there are a lot of variables in operation. Number one, the Soviet Union was huge with a vast amount of land and other natural resources. So they could get by with a crappy economic system for quite some time with horrible hardships along the way. Also a lot of their technological advancements came from German and other scientists funneled out of Germany after the war, just like the US.(Especially the US space program.)

A big part of this was also where this technology was focused - most of it was on weapons and military technology. A lot of the architecture, with some exceptions (mainly grand public buildings), was drab and poorly constructed. So you had this emphasis on military technology while a lot of everything else wasn't that great. Contrast this with the US, which was able to produce state of the art weaponry while at the same time private corporate entities were able to produce landmark buildings with their own market-derived funds - see the Empire State Building, World Trade Center, Sears Tower, Transamerica Pyramid, etc.(Not that those are the finest examples of architecture that mankind has produced, but you get the point. Also some were partially subsidized.)

My point is that you don't exactly find some kind of step-by-step development in property rights that corresponds to developments in wealth. Property rights didn't start out weak in 18th century America and exponentially increase for 200 years, but for some reason wealth did.

In my opinion property rights are fundamental and technology just enhances and accelerates the creation of societal wealth made possible by them. So in other words a society with strong property rights could get by without technology but even technology could not save a society with no property rights from stagnation and decline, as illustrated by the Soviet example.
12.2.2008 1:43pm
American Psikhushka (mail):
Portland-

Prior to the division, all the land was privately owned -- by a corporation. That corporation mismanaged the incentives for its employees to the point that they were in danger of starvation. The employees then seized the mishandled assets of the shareholders and distributed them to the workers, who prospered.

Rather a strange story for conservatives to hallow.


Personally I'm a libertarian, not a conservative.

But the terms you use are not identical to the modern usage. Corporations at that time were usually chartered by the king so they were to some extent different from modern corporations. And the "employees" were somewhat more than modern employees, since growing their own food, building their own housing, living at the workplace, etc. were part of the arrangement.

A description taking this into account, but equally slanted in the direction of libertarianism would read:

"Boneheaded government lackeys establish commie company town, resulting in disaster. Yeoman proto-libertarians establish property rights to ensure survival and prosperity. But they were a bunch of puritans, so even though they survived they were still uptight and didn't have much fun anyway."
12.2.2008 2:09pm
Andrew J. Lazarus (mail):
In a great many countries with British-based legal systems, allodial title in land remains with the government. In Israel, for example, most property is held in leasehold, and the principal exceptions are Arab landowners with Ottoman-era grants and persons to whom such landowners have sold. I believe the vast majority of land in Australia is also held in leasehold, at least until recently. A similar situation held in Scotland (with a small number of landowners instead of the state) until 2001.

And I'm not a lawyer. I'm a little bewildered that the Original Poster seems to know less than I do (or is deliberately obscuring the question of who owns land, as opposed to who is entitled to the usufruct).
12.2.2008 2:11pm
Portland (mail):

Corporations at that time were usually chartered by the king so they were to some extent different from modern corporations.


All corporations have to be "chartered by the king," i.e., recognized by the sovereign, in order to operate. Of course, if you say "[x] in the 17th century was different than [x] today" you will never be wrong. Can't step in the same river twice, etc.

But this corporation exchanged capital for shares and attempted to convert said capital into a good profit given a return on the investment of the shareholders. As such things go, that's pretty close to a modern corporation.

As to your effort to "slant" the narrative -- that's not necessary. The idea that this was a victory for private property is itself the slant you refer to, since in reality, the land was always privately owned. The owners (the investors) later agreed, under duress, to redistribute their land to their employees free of charge.

The story illustrates the importance of good incentives to production, but not the virtues of private property.
12.2.2008 2:21pm
Portland (mail):
As I think more about it, the employees chose not to work hard given the conditions imposed by their employer. Corporate productivity was crippled, and as a result, owners were forced to transfer a large proportion of their assets to their workers, giving the workers the private plots they'd wanted to begin with. The investors got nothing in return except an end to the work slowdown.

Maybe we should regard this as the first American labor action -- a successful "work to rule" strike.
12.2.2008 2:30pm
mporcius (mail):
Bill Harshaw,

Alan Macfarlane in his famous book Origins of English Individualism disagrees with you. He presents evidence from court records and elsewhere that many English individuals owned, bought and sold land before 1600.
12.2.2008 2:45pm
dan:
American Psikhushka,

Portland quoted a passage that referred to "the investors" disallowing Pilgrims from farming their own "private" plots of land.

Then Portland morphed the word "investors" into "a corporation."

Then you somehow morphed "corporation" into "government," in order to conclude that "Boneheaded government lackeys establish commie company town, resulting in disaster.."

Pretty hilarious how some who call themselves "libertarian" can turn any villain in a story into "the government." Here, you conclude that "investors" == "government." Your reason? They did something stupid, therefore, they must be government!

By that reasoning, it's going to be pretty hard to ever convince you that private investment can cause problems.

Remember, corporations in the US are chartered by the government too. Does that mean that everything a corporation does is government action? If GM promises its workers healthcare throughout their retirement, and consequently goes bankrupt, is that an example of the failure of communism? Because that's pretty much the same argument you made in response to Portland.
12.2.2008 2:47pm
JaneK (mail):
"The investors got nothing in return except an end to the work slowdown"

Work Slowdown? Are you kidding? People weren't withholding labor until demands were met. The hardest workers were tired of pulling most of the load, the slackers needed to be strongly incented to work harder. The 'workers' didn't revolt here - good grief, what a notion.
12.2.2008 3:31pm
Portland (mail):

Then Portland morphed the word "investors" into "a corporation."


I didn't "morph" them. See wikipedia:


The English started joint stock companies. The earliest recognized company was the Virginia Company.[1] [2]

The British East India Company, sometimes referred to as "John Company", was one of the more famous joint-stock companies. It was granted an English Royal Charter by Elizabeth I on December 31, 1600, with the intention of favouring trade privileges in India. The Royal Charter effectively gave the newly created Honourable East India Company (HEIC) a 21 year monopoly on all trade in the East Indies. The Company transformed from a commercial trading venture to one that virtually ruled India as it acquired auxiliary governmental and military functions, until its dissolution in 30452214123480617432820151.
The British East India Company's flag initially had the flag of England, the St. George's Cross in the corner.

Soon afterwards in 1602, the Dutch East India Company issued shares on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange.

During the period of colonialism, the joint stock company Europeans, initially the British, trading with the Near East for goods, pepper and calico for example, enjoyed spreading the risk of trade over multiple sea voyages. The joint stock company became a more viable financial structure than previous guilds or state regulated companies. The first joint-stock companies to be implemented in the Americas were The Virginia Company and The Plymouth Company.



A joint-stock company being, of course, a type of corporation. Limited-liability enterprises like these were used to raise capital for the risky and uncertain business of foreign colonization. Hence, the Virgina Company and the Plymouth company were very much the ancestors of our modern corporations, and they were structured the way they were for the same reasons we have corporations today; to facilitate large and risky ventures that would otherwise not be able to attract funding.

No politics, just a little American history for your Tuesday afternoon.
12.2.2008 3:41pm
JaneK (mail):
"As I think more about it, the employees chose not to work hard given the conditions imposed by their employer"

This is not the way I view it. Like any group project, the 80/20 rule applies. Twenty percent of the people do 80% of the work. It appears that a number of people did not give their best efforts as there was a safety net - other community members who would work to feed them. They probably gave some effort, but not enough. And they probably justified this to themselves and others ("I have two small children" or "I hurt my back", etc) It is the nature of some people to let others do a lot of the work. At some point, the 20% hard workers start to complain - with good reason. Changes had to be made or they would all die. All people needed to work hard to save the colony. Whether is was mandated by the leaders of the colony, or they group voted - the effect was the same. They were given a piece of land and told to work it - their success or failure was their own from then on. And it worked.

This is not a lesson about collective bargining. This is a lesson about human nature and incentives.

Collectivism does not work in the long run. I will not work myself silly to support you if you are capable of supporing yourself. I will grow weary and demand that you put your efforts in too. And if I am the slacker, I need incentives to get off my a** and pull my weight. Good lessons for today's socialistic economy.
12.2.2008 3:46pm
MarkField (mail):
One other point about corporations circa 1600 -- they were monopolies (just as municipal corporations were). That's why you see a great deal of anti-corporate rhetoric among nascent libertarians in the from the 18th until the mid-19th Centuries (when corporations became generally available).
12.2.2008 3:46pm
American Psikhushka (mail):
Portland-

But this corporation exchanged capital for shares and attempted to convert said capital into a good profit given a return on the investment of the shareholders. As such things go, that's pretty close to a modern corporation.

Not at all. The legal system, etc. wasn't even close to the present day. It's not like you could go to a labor attorney and "sue" the king. Because in many cases the king or his representative was the judge.

As to your effort to "slant" the narrative -- that's not necessary. The idea that this was a victory for private property is itself the slant you refer to, since in reality, the land was always privately owned. The owners (the investors) later agreed, under duress, to redistribute their land to their employees free of charge.

As mentioned above, the whole nature of the venture was different from a modern corporation. This was a colony, so they had to build everything, grow their own food, etc. So it was pretty much a given that each of the colonists was going to have some kind of stake in the venture. They just discovered by almost starving that holding all the stakes collectively doesn't work too well.

The story illustrates the importance of good incentives to production, but not the virtues of private property.

No, it shows that private property is critical to economic prosperity. I'm sure the Soviets tried all kinds of production incentives but it didn't make much difference.

And what kind of incentives are you talking about? If you're talking about money, that is private property. Eventually they just would have taken the money and bought their own - private - land.
12.3.2008 10:04am
American Psikhushka (mail):
Portland-

As I think more about it, the employees chose not to work hard given the conditions imposed by their employer. Corporate productivity was crippled, and as a result, owners were forced to transfer a large proportion of their assets to their workers, giving the workers the private plots they'd wanted to begin with. The investors got nothing in return except an end to the work slowdown.

As mentioned above this was a colony, not a modern business venture. So the colonists were going to have a stake in it. The leadership just made an ill-fated attempt to do that collectively, and everyone nearly starved.
12.3.2008 10:10am
American Psikhushka (mail):
dan-

Then you somehow morphed "corporation" into "government," in order to conclude that "Boneheaded government lackeys establish commie company town, resulting in disaster.."

Pretty hilarious how some who call themselves "libertarian" can turn any villain in a story into "the government." Here, you conclude that "investors" == "government." Your reason? They did something stupid, therefore, they must be government!


First of all I was being facetious, so there is some latitude there. But the thing is this was a colony - the "managers" were the government. In many if not most cases the governors were appointed, or at least approved, by th king. An analogy to the present day would be the US President deciding who the CEO of IBM would be and then telling them where they were going to put factories. So yes, the "managers" were the "government".

By that reasoning, it's going to be pretty hard to ever convince you that private investment can cause problems.

Of course private investment can cause problems. But usually it's when private companies are breaking laws, violating people's rights, using force or fraud on people, etc. For example slavery is a crime, a rights violation, and an immoral use of force. Libertarians wouldn't magically think that was OK if a corporation was doing it.

Free markets can cause problems, but usually it's when they're involved in something that violates some other libertarian principle. But something like slavery isn't exactly a "free" market anyway - illegal coercion is being used.
12.3.2008 10:28am
Elliot123 (mail):
"...but IP rights don't cause innovation any more than real property rights cause wheat to grow."

I agree the wheat dessn't care much about property rights. But the farmer does. Property rights do cause the farmer to plant the wheat and tend it. He has no incentive to plant on land he doesn't own or lease.

This even applies to urban sophisticates. Has anybody noticed a rush by private individuals to maintain buildings they don't own?
12.3.2008 11:40am