Thursday, November 22, 2012

Pilgrims, Property, and Prosperity

Hugh Welchel of the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics  has a thought provoking essay in the Washington Post entitled "Thanksgiving: Pilgrims, property rights and prosperity."

Evoking Paul Harvey, Welchel writes:
We all know the story that with the help of the Native Americans, who showed the Pilgrims how to plant corn, food shortages were resolved, resulting in a great harvest and a Thanksgiving celebration.
But few of us know the rest of the story.

In reality, the Pilgrims continued to face chronic food shortages for the next three years. But it was not bad weather or lack of farming skills that caused them.

I suspect that, based on a misunderstanding of the opening chapters of the book of Acts, the Plymouth Plantation was founded in 1620 with a system of communal property rights, not biblical property rights. The community held everything in common, including food and supplies, distributing them equally and as needed by plantation officials. Everyone received equal portions regardless of their contribution.

Welchel importantly contrasts the decisions made by the Pilgrims with those of contemporary Americans:

Yet, it is interesting that Americans in the 21st century seem to have everything but gratitude. As a nation, we are moving away from the God-given biblical and economic principles that made this nation great. There is a growing belief that the government should “fairly” redistribute the wealth and move toward an economic system that nearly doomed the Pilgrims. We no longer appreciate opportunity but instead demand what we think we deserve.

By contrast, the Americans in 1621 had nothing but gratitude and a desire to seek God’s will in their lives. They saw the error of their ways and made the appropriate corrections. 
My only quibble with the piece is that the disastrous communistic property relations were not driven by the Separatist's Christian convictions, but dictated by the directors of the company that had monopoly rights to the colony.

As I explained a couple of years ago:

In fact, the Pilgrims did not desire to establish Christian communism. As I noted a couple of years ago in response to this essay, the Pilgrims original communal property arrangements were foisted upon them by their colonial sponsors. The sponsors did this after they learned that they would not be granted a monopoly of fishing rights in Cape Cod. The sponsors’ original agreement with the Pilgrims was such that the Pilgrims were to work for four days for the sponsoring company and then would have two days to work for themselves. The sponsors later changed their deal and told the Pilgrims that they would have to work all six days of the work week for the sponsors. At the end of seven years, the Pilgrims would be granted title to the property they worked. The Pilgrims were not happy with the change, several of them recognizing that the new arrangement would make them virtual slaves of the sponsors, but they went along with the deal because many had already made large investments toward the move and they were convinced that emigrating to the New World is what God wanted them to do.

Bradford’s establishing private property was not a repudiation of any belief they had that Christian charity requires communism. They had no intention of implementing such a system. The Pilgrims’ move to private property was, in fact, a move to a properly Christian ethic as it regards property. God blessed the Pilgrims with material plenty as they forsook their original socialist property arrangement and adopted one more in agreement with Christian ethics. 


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