For Thanksgiving, we enjoy sharing the story of how changing economic incentives influenced the English colony in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to which we trace the holiday.
Like many economists, we have interpreted this history as a movement from common property to private property, from socialism to free markets. However, the historian Jeremy Bangs, who recently passed away and was likely the most prominent expert on the history of the Plymouth colony, claimed this was just a transition from one kind of capitalism to another. Bangs said that since shareholders in England funded Plymouth, the colonists had to pay the English shareholders before they could own the land as private property.
Plymouth colony was initially organized as a large-scale farming operation where managers assigned the necessary farming tasks to the other colonists. William Bradford, governor of the colony, reported in his memoirs, “The young men that were most able and fit for labor and service did repine [i.e., complain] that they should spend their time and strength to work for other mens [sic] wives and children, without any recompense.” The harvest was small, and Bradford noted that by winter, “All ther [sic] victuals were spent (and they) led a miserable life.”
So, in the spring of 1623, the colonists “began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could … that they might not still thus languish in misery.” The solution? They “gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular [private] use. … And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end.” This solution “made all hands very industrious.” Bradford noted, “The women now went willingly into the field and took their little ones with them to set corn, which before … to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.” As a result, after the fall of 1623, “any general want or famine has not been among them since to this day.”
Assuming Jeremy Bangs is correct that Plymouth Colony moved from one form of capitalism to another, the core of the economic story is still that individual incentives were at the heart of Plymouth’s history and that economic incentives have a powerful effect on people’s behavior. One of the many things we are grateful for is that we have the freedom to access and incorporate new perspectives into our cherished narratives!•
Bohanon and Horowitz are professors of economics at Ball State University. Send comments to email@example.com.