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Private property protects us from the tragedy of shared resources

John Stossel on

Families will argue this Thanksgiving. Such arguments have a long tradition.

The Pilgrims had clashing ideas about how to organize their settlement in the New World. The resolution of that debate made the first Thanksgiving possible.

The Pilgrims were religious, united by faith and a powerful desire to start anew, away from religious persecution in the Old World. Each member of the community professed a desire to labor together, on behalf of the whole settlement.

In other words: socialism. But when they tried that, the Pilgrims almost starved.

Their collective farming -- the whole community deciding when and how much to plant, when to harvest, who would do the work -- was an inefficient disaster.

"By the spring," Pilgrim leader William Bradford wrote in his diary, "our food stores were used up and people grew weak and thin. Some swelled with hunger... So they began to think how ... they might not still thus languish in misery."

 

His answer: divide the commune into parcels and assign each Pilgrim family its own property. As Bradford put it, they "set corn every man for his own particular. ... Assigned every family a parcel of land."

Private property protects us from what economists call the tragedy of the commons. The "commons" is a shared resource. That means it's really owned by no one, and no one person has much incentive to protect it or develop it.

The Pilgrims' simple change to private ownership, wrote Bradford, "made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been." Soon they had so much plenty that they could share food with the natives.

The Indians weren't socialists, either. They had property rules of their own. That helped them grow enough so they had plenty, even during cold winters.

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