A Thanksgiving Lesson We Need Again
November 23, 2012 by Chip Wood
Many years ago, I was hired by a national conservative organization and given an interesting job assignment: travel the country and introduce conservative principles to high school and college students. To say it was sometimes challenging would be the understatement of the year.
After some trials and more than a few errors, I hit upon a couple of anecdotes that seemed to resonate with many members of my audiences. In the first one, I asked them to imagine what would happen if one day the teacher said something like this:
Some of you did very well on yesterday’s test. I’m happy to report that many of you earned As and B’s. But others didn’t do nearly as well, and I’m sorry to say that there were also many Ds and even a few Fs.
Today we’re going to conduct an experiment in equality. I’m going to take some points from those of you who did well and give them to those students whose scores were much lower. All of you who got As will lose some points to those who got Fs. Those with Bs will give some points to those with Ds. As a result of this redistribution, everyone will end up with a C.
Then, I asked the students what they thought the result of this experiment would be. Sometimes, the responses got very lively — especially if I was talking to a high school or junior high school class. The older sophisticates in college were much more blasé in their responses.
I heard a lot of “that wouldn’t be fair” and “you can’t do that.” But when they calmed down a bit, almost everyone agreed that if this grade redistribution continued, all grades would go down. The students who normally worked hard for an A or a B wouldn’t work as hard. Many of them would start getting Cs. And even those in the bottom half would not try to do better, so their grades would suffer, too. In time, the entire class would not be doing as well as it had been.
It was an interesting way to lead into my larger point about the benefits of competition and rewarding success. I said that the incredible prosperity we enjoyed in this country was thanks to the free-enterprise system and allowing people to keep the fruits of their own labors.
The young students in my audiences seemed to enjoy the discussions, even when they weren’t sure about my conclusions. Interestingly enough, in several cases the most vocal opponent wasn’t a student, but the teacher in the classroom. And don’t get me started on some college professors I encountered.
Another story I shared that always got a lively response, especially among older students, was when I told them about how our Pilgrim forefathers practiced a form of communism when they first arrived on our shores. And what a miserable failure it was until they abandoned it in favor of any early form of capitalism.
Let me share that lesson with you now, on the day after Thanksgiving. I think you’ll agree it contains some very important truths for us today.
The Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock in December 1620 were motivated by the noblest of virtues. They had vowed to be as selfless as possible and to always put the needs of the group first.
Because provisions were so scanty, they decided that the land would be worked in common, all produce would be owned in common and goods would be rationed equally. It was the agrarian version of Karl Marx’s dictate “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
Unfortunately, this utopian idea did not work very well. Pilferage from the storehouse became common. Suspicions of malingering were muttered. Over the course of that first harsh winter, nearly half of the colonists perished. Four families were wiped out entirely. Only five of 18 wives survived. Of the 29 single men, hired hands and servants, only 10 were alive when spring finally came.
But the colonists struggled on for two more years. Armed guards were placed around the storehouse. All of the able-bodied men were asked to work longer and harder. But by the spring of 1623, all of their provisions were gone. Unless things drastically improved, they feared few would survive the next winter.
That’s when the Pilgrim leaders decided on a bold course. The colony would abandon its communal approach and permit each person to work for his own benefit, not for the common good.
What happened then seemed like a miracle. Here is how the Governor of the colony, William Bradford, described the results. This is from his marvelously readable memoir (if you can make adjustments for the Old English spellings), History of Plimoth Plantation:
The experience that was had in this commone course and condition, tried sundrie years, and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanitie of that conceite of Plato & other ancients, applauded by some of later times; — that ye taking away of properties, and bringing it in communitie into a commone wealth, would make them happy and flourishing; as it they were wiser than God.
For this comunities (so farr as it was) was found to breed much confusion & discontent, and retard much employment that would have been to their benefite and comforte. For yet young men that were most able and fitte for labor & services did repine that they should spend their time & strength to worke for other men’s wives and children without any recompense.
Once they replaced communal efforts with individual responsibility, the differences were dramatic — and life-saving. Men went into the fields earlier and stayed later. In many cases, their wives and even their children (some barely past the toddler stage) worked right alongside them.
More acres were planted, more trees were felled, more houses were built and more game was slaughtered because of one simple change: People were allowed to keep the fruits of their own labors. For the first time, instead of scarcity, the Pilgrims enjoyed abundance. The colony not only survived, it thrived. In gratitude for their bounty, they held the first celebration of Thanksgiving in this country.
On this Thanksgiving weekend, some 352 years after the Pilgrims celebrated the first of this uniquely American holiday, let us remember the sacrifices they made, the devotion they showed and the lessons they learned.
Until next time, keep some powder dry.