Wednesday, January 9, 2008


Excerpted and adapted from The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity through the Ages, by Tom Bethell. Copyright Tom Bethell. )
When the Pilgrims landed in 1620, they established a system of communal property. Within three years they had scrapped it, instituting private property instead.

There are three configurations of property rights: state, communal, and private property. Within a family, many goods are in effect communally owned. But when the number of communal members exceeds normal family size, as happens in tribes and communes, serious and intractable problems arise. It becomes costly to police the activities of the members, all of whom are entitled to their share of the total product of the community, whether they work or not. This is the free-rider problem, and it is the most important institutional reason tribes and communes cannot rise above subsistence level (except in special circumstances, such as monasteries).


The Mayflower arrived at Cape Cod in November 1620 with 101 people on board. About half of them died within the first few months, probably of scurvy, pneumonia, or malnutrition. It is not easy for us to grasp the hardships that the first settlers in this country experienced, even in New England, where the native American Indians were relatively friendly.

By the spring of 1623, the population of Plymouth can have been no larger than 150. But the colony was still barely able to feed itself, and little cargo was returning for the investors in England. On one occasion newcomers found that there was no bread at all, only fish or a piece of lobster and water. “So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery,” Bradford wrote in his key passage on property.

Having tried what Bradford called the “common course and condition”—the communal stewardship of the land demanded of them by their investors—Bradford reports that the community was afflicted by an unwillingness to work, by confusion and discontent, by a loss of mutual respect, and by a prevailing sense of slavery and injustice. And this among “godly and sober men.” In short, the experiment was a failure that was endangering the health of the colony.

Historian George Langdon argues that the condition of early Plymouth was not “communism” but “an extreme form of exploitative capitalism in which all the fruits of men’s labor were shipped across the seas.” In this he echoes Samuel Eliot Morison, who claims that “it was not communism . . . but a very degrading and onerous slavery to the English capitalists that was somewhat softened.” Notice that this does not agree with the dissension that Bradford reports, however. It was between the colonists themselves that the conflicts arose, not between the colonists and the investors in London. Morison and Langdon conflate two separate problems. On the one hand, it is true that the colonists did feel “exploited” by the investors because they were eventually expected to surrender to them an undue portion of the wealth they were trying to create. It is as though they felt that they were being “taxed” too highly by their investors—at a 50 percent rate, in fact.

But there was another problem, separate from the “tax” burden. Bradford’s comments make it clear that common ownership demoralized the community far more than the tax. It was not Pilgrims laboring for investors that caused so much distress but Pilgrims laboring for other Pilgrims. Common property gave rise to internecine conflicts that were much more serious than the transatlantic ones. The industrious (in Plymouth) were forced to subsidize the slackers (in Plymouth). The strong “had no more in division of victuals and clothes” than the weak. The older men felt it disrespectful to be “equalized in labours” with the younger men.

This suggests that a form of communism was practiced at Plymouth in 1621 and 1622. No doubt this equalization of tasks was thought (at first) the only fair way to solve the problem of who should do what work in a community where there was to be no individual property: If everyone were to end up with an equal share of the property at the end of seven years, everyone should presumably do the same work throughout those seven years. The problem that inevitably arose was the formidable one of policing this division of labor: How to deal with those who did not pull their weight?

The Pilgrims had encountered the free-rider problem. Under the arrangement of communal property one might reasonably suspect that any additional effort might merely substitute for the lack of industry of others. And these “others” might well be able-bodied, too, but content to take advantage of the communal ownership by contributing less than their fair share. As we shall see, it is difficult to solve this problem without dividing property into individual or family-sized units. And this was the course of action that William Bradford wisely took.

Bradford’s history of the colony records the decision:

At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other things to go in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number.

So the land they worked was converted into private property, which brought “very good success.” The colonists immediately became responsible for their own actions (and those of their immediate families), not for the actions of the whole community. Bradford also suggests in his history that more than land was privatized.

The system became self-policing. Knowing that the fruits of his labor would benefit his own family and dependents, the head of each household was given an incentive to work harder. He could know that his additional efforts would help specific people who depended on him. In short, the division of property established a proportion or “ratio” between act and consequence. Human action is deprived of rationality without it, and work will decline sharply as a result.

Under communal land stewardship, Bradford reports, the community was afflicted by an unwillingness to work, by confusion and discontent, by a loss of mutual respect, and by a prevailing sense of slavery and injustice.

William Bradford died in 1657, having been reelected governor nearly every year. Among his books, according to the inventory of his estate, was Jean Bodin’s Six Books of a Commonweale, a work that criticized the utopianism of Plato’s Republic. In Plato’s ideal realm, private property would be abolished or curtailed and most inhabitants reduced to slavery, supervised by high-minded, ascetic guardians. Bodin said that communal property was “the mother of contention and discord” and that a commonwealth based on it would perish because “nothing can be public where nothing is private.”

Bradford felt that, in retrospect, his real-life experience of building a new society at Plymouth had confirmed Bodin’s judgment. Property in Plymouth was further privatized in the years ahead. The housing and later the cattle were assigned to separate families, and provision was made for the inheritance of wealth. The colony flourished. Plymouth Colony was absorbed into the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and in the prosperous years that lay ahead, nothing more was heard of “the common course and condition.”