#194 Thankful for Private Property

"The Christian Economist" with logo and a closeup of a dollar bill in the background

The Pilgrims tried socialism and it failed. Then private property led to so much prosperity that they hosted the first Thanksgiving.


If you have enough to eat this Thanksgiving, you should be thankful for the private property system that produced the food. We live in the most prosperous, fruitful time in human history. Let’s take a brief look at how we got here.

In October of 1621, Plymouth Colony governor William Bradford called a three-day festival, inviting the ninety Indians to join the 50 Pilgrims. This feast, which included times of thanks to God as well as athletic competitions and food and fellowship, is commonly celebrated as the first Thanksgiving festival in America. So, if you celebrate it with football games and food with your neighbors, you are re-enacting this cherished Christian tradition, but who were these Pilgrims, and how did they get here?


Fight or Flight

That’s the basic idea from psychology that our minds are built to either change ideas we disagree with, or run from them. It’s a pretty big discussion among Christians in the United States today. Or, at least, it SHOULD be. I delve into the question in podcast #72 titled Two Worlds. Being in the world, but not of the world is becoming more difficult in post modernity.

The Pilgrims response was flight, as explained by David Barton at WallBuilders: The Pilgrims are well known today for their association with the first Thanksgiving festival. The Pilgrims were Separatists — a set of Protestants who felt that they would be unable to reform the Church of England and therefore they chose “flight” over “fight.” They went to Holland and then eventually to America. But the other group who came later, were Puritans. They were “fighters” who believed they could reform the Church of England. It turned out that they were wrong, and following severe persecution, some 20,000 followed the Pilgrims to America.

The Pilgrims had obtained a land grant for Virginia and set sail in the Mayflower on September 6, 1620. But after a rough ocean crossing, they landed 200 miles north of Virginia in what became known as Massachusetts. On November 11, 1620, they finally dropped anchor and came ashore.


Grateful or Entitled

Of the hundreds of books and articles I’ve read and the hundreds of speeches I’ve heard, the one that makes the most impact on today’s subject is a little five-minute video by Dennis Prager, titled The Key to Unhappiness. He says there are two groups of people: Those who are grateful and those who are entitled. The grateful will always be happy, the entitled will never be happy. And here’s the strange part: Dennis is a Jew, who does not believe Jesus died for him. Think about it: A Jew is telling a Christian that HE should be grateful. Kinda backward, isn’t it? I’m the one who should be telling HIM to be grateful.

Jesus had to die for your sins because there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Somebody had to pay. And it wasn’t you. That’s why Christians are grateful, and why we celebrate Thanksgiving. We have a lot to be grateful for.

You’re welcome to feel sorry for atheists during this season. They have no one to be grateful TO. I don’t know how you can be grateful FOR, without being grateful TO. Oh, then the non-believer has to suffer through Christmas, and not celebrate the birth of Christ. You know, for all we complain about the difficulty of being a Christian, this time of year, it’s quite a blessing.

Our grandkids sometimes tell each other, “You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.” Actually, that’s a pretty good Christian economic philosophy. Be happy for what you have. After all, being happy is not having what you want, it’s wanting what you have.

In our book Biblical Economic Policy, Sergiy Saydometov and I mention this concept as one of the Ten Commandments of Economics, which we borrowed from the list by Moses. It’s #4 for us, and it’s called “Don’t Covet.”


If you Don’t Work

The apostle Paul wrote the people in Thessalonica, “He who won’t work, won’t eat.” The first Pilgrims hava the same problem some 2000 years later.

William Bradford was the governor of the Plymouth colony. Here’s what he had to say about the socialism of the early Pilgrims, “By adopting the communal system we thought we were wiser than God.” That’s true of Socialists today. They think they are so smart, they can plan an economic system. No one is as smart as all of us. I often use this little diagram when I teach the power of markets in my class at Dallas Baptist University. The benevolent dictator would have to have perfect vision through two eyes, but it’s spelled with a capital I because it stands for information and intent. Bradford thought he was wiser than God because he tried to plan a socialist system that would produce more than the market system. He found he was not as smart as he thought. And, socialists since him have continued to try, but it never works. I unpack more of this in podcast #76 titled Central Planning Still Does Not Work. It never did.

From Kings in the Old Testament to the Romans in the New Testament. From William Bradford at Plymouth to Robert Owen in Indiana in 1842, from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to Vladimir Lenin. From Fidel Castro to Hugo Chavez, from Jeremy Corbyn in the UK to Bernie Sanders in the US Senate: They are all trying to be God, like Adam and Eve. And, what they all find, is that if you eat the apple, you get poorer. If you award it as private property and allow humans, made in the image of God, to find creative ways to increase their production and be industrious and fruitful, the economy multiplies and everyone gets richer.


Those Fruitful Pilgrims

Here’s how Jerry Bower explained it in Forbes Magazine, way back in 2008, in an article titled “Lessons From A Capitalist Thanksgiving.

The members of the Plymouth colony had arrived in the New World with a plan for collective property ownership. Reflecting the current opinion of the aristocratic class in the 1620s, their charter called for farmland to be worked communally and for the harvests to be shared.”

Predictably, famine ensued, followed quickly by plague. Half the colony died. Unlike today’s socialists, they learned from their mistakes, giving each person a parcel of land as private property.

The results were astounding. They were actually following the advice that would be written 150 years later by Adam Smith: Specialize, then trade your surplus. Men worked hard. Fields were not only tilled and planted but also diligently harvested. They traded with the neighboring Indian nations and learned to plant maize, squash, and pumpkin and to rotate crops from year to year.


The harvest was bountiful, and new colonists immigrated to the thriving private property, capitalist economy. Kind of like the folks crossing the southern border of the United States today. People want to live in a private property, capitalist state.


Private Property

When I talk about the lack of private property in my sophomore class at Dallas Baptist University, the students have trouble grasping the concept. They know that they have a title to their car, and their parents have a title to their home. To live in a society without private property, and the attendant legal system to enforce it, is frankly, beyond their level of understanding.

That’s why the Pilgrims were richer than the Native American Indians they encountered in the New World. Most Indians didn’t believe in private property. They were mostly animists, who worshipped the earth. You can find many of their philosophical descendants today in the modern world, who worship the creation instead of the Creator.

As Hernando DeSoto explains in The Mystery of Capital, in the early colonial period of the United States, property owners marked the edges of their property with corn stalks in Iowa and hatchet marks on trees in New England. What De Soto so clearly explains is how those common marking systems became standardized and codified into law. Private property and the laws that defend it are what make nations wealthy, and it produced the first Thanksgiving.

I will close with an admonition from Mark Perry at the American Enterprise Institute, “Before we eat turkey this Thanksgiving, we should first thank private property rights, because they protect us from the “tragedy of the commons” that resulted in starvation and death for the early Pilgrims’ failed experiment with socialism. Without property rights, Thanksgiving Day would be “Starvation Day.”

Fear God
Tell the Truth
Earn a Profit