ica’s first socialist republic // Scott Johnson
Paul A. Rahe is the Charles O. Lee & Louise K. Lee Chair in Western Heritage at Hillsdale College. He is one of the most prominent scholars of politics and history in the country. Professor Rahe is the most respected authority on the history and politics of republics due to his studies of States Ancient and Modern. His later work on Hard Despotism was close to his Thanksgiving reflections in 2009, when he wrote this column. However, his earlier work on republics was not as relevant. It is posted here every Thanksgiving since 2009. It speaks directly to the socialist temptation we face yet.
It is customary for Americans to recall the Pilgrim Fathers’ Thanksgiving experience. The history of the Plymouth Plantation has much to teach us. The history of the Plymouth Plantation is instructive because the Pilgrims did a social engineering experiment in their first year in New World. After failing to cultivate the land in common, their leaders considered the results and reflected on them.
William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth Colony, reported that he and his advisors had considered “how they might raise corn as much as they could” and “how they should assign corn to each man for his particular” and “every family a piece of land according to their number for that purpose.”
He tells us that the results were very satisfying and that they made all hands work harder than ever before.
He also observed that “the experience that was made in this common course of condition, tried sundry year. . . Amongst godly, sober men, you may well see the vanity of Plato’s and other ancients applauded later. . . They believed that taking away property and bringing in communities into a commonwealth would make them happy, flourishing.” In reality, America’s first socialist experiment “was found out to cause much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment that would have been in their favor and comfort.”
In practice, the “young men” who were most able and able to work and serve, did not feel obligated to give any recompense. The man of parts, the strong, could not divide victuals or clothes more than the one who was weaker and unable to do a quarter of it; this was considered injustice. It was considered inhumane and disrespectful for the older and more grave men to be ranked and equally divided in labors, victuals, and clothes with the younger and less able. Men’s wives were to be ordered to serve other men, such as washing their clothes and dressing their meat. Many husbands could not accept it.
Naturally, there were quarrels. Bradford says that even though it didn’t endanger the relationships God has established among men, it did reduce and remove the mutual respects that should have been maintained among them. It would have been worse if they were men of a different condition,” less open to the fear of God. He concludes that “this is men’s corruption and nothing to the course.” I respond, because all men have this corruption, God in His wisdom saw another way for them.
The moral of the story is clear. Self-interest is not something that can be ignored. If private property is protected and acquired with respect, jealousy and self-interest can be used against laziness or the desire for something that isn’t one’s.
However, when one takes from those who combine talent with industry to provide support for those who are lacking either or both, when the fruits of one man’s labor are taken to benefit another who has less productivity, self-interest reinforces laziness, jealousy breeds covetousness, which all combine to create conflict and dearth.