Is the lesson of Thanksgiving never to experiment with socialist utopias?

If you listen to certain free market devotees, Rush Limbaugh, or a reasonable number of Tea Partiers, you might think so.

When Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, we think of the Pilgrims in New England feasting, giving thanks for a bountiful harvest, and sharing a meal with the Native Americans who taught them how to survive. But according to Rush Limbaugh’s 1994 book See I told You So and a 1999 blog post entitled The Great Thanksgiving Hoax from the Ludwig von Mises Institute that became popular in Tea Party circles, the Pilgrims were really celebrating the miracle of free market principles at work. 

Their version of the story focuses on the settlers’ collectivist system. The colonists put all the fruits of their labor in a common stock out of which they each received a share, which meant that individual Pilgrims had an incentive to freeload rather than work hard. Rush Limbaugh declares, “Long before Karl Marx was even born, the Pilgrims had discovered and experimented with what could only be described as socialism.”

The Mises Institute strikes a blow at America’s beloved Pilgrims by saying that during their years of famine, many were “lazy” or even “thieves.” The relaters of this economic retelling of Thanksgiving quote the colony’s governor in a history of Plymouth Plantation:

“This system was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. The problem was that young men, that were most able and fit for labor, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. Because of the poor incentives, little food was produced.”

The key change took place in 1623, two years after the first Thanksgiving meal, when the colony abandoned its system of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” The collective system was abandoned and each settler or family received a parcel of land and the ability to enjoy and profit from their own labor. The Mises Institute account reads:

In 1614, Colony Secretary Ralph Hamor wrote that after the switch there was “plenty of food, which every man by his own industry may easily and doth procure.” He said that when the socialist system had prevailed, “we reaped not so much corn from the labors of thirty men as three men have done for themselves now.”

With the right economic incentives, famines were a thing of the past for the settlers. So this Thanksgiving, should we do as these accounts suggest and teach children the failings of socialism and how Pilgrims learned to embrace the free market?

As we at Priceonomics learned, it’s not easy for amateurs to look back at historical events and sort through competing interpretations. Even the briefest glance destroys the simple story we learned as children. Thanksgiving is an amalgamation of the religious tradition of a day of prayer and fasting (actually called thanksgiving or thanksgivings at the time) with celebrations of large harvests (not referred to as Thanksgiving during the Pilgrims’ original feast). The image of Pilgrims wearing black and white and funny, buckled hats is a historically inaccurate rendering of later 17th and 18th century artists. Even the word Pilgrim is picked up from a passage of the governor’s writing and was never used by the settlers themselves. 

Luckily in 2010, the New York Times published an article that quoted several historians’ reactions to the Rush Limbaugh take on Thanksgiving. They found it wanting.

The system of holding property in common came from the charter imposed by the English investors that agreed to fund the colonists (who were meant to settle in Virginia) in exchange for a share of any profits. Although the settlers took liberties with the original agreement, the system derived from a decision to maximize profit rather than enjoy a socialist utopia. As a NYU historian put it, “Is Halliburton a socialist scheme?”

Some of the free market accounts of Thanksgiving acknowledge the investors’ responsibility for the collectivist system. But the question remains of whether it caused famine. In the Times, historians note that the colonists celebratory feast took place in 1621, two years before the collective system was abandoned. The Deputy Director of the Plimoth Plantation museum notes, “The celebration would never have happened if the harvest was going to be less than enough to get them by. They would have saved it and rationed it.”

How then do we understand the complaints of freeloaders? The historians explain it as misunderstandings between settlers from different parts of England (“One man’s laziness is another man’s industry, based on the agricultural methods they’ve learned as young people”) and general griping as individuals performed tasks for each other. The Times article cites historians insisting that the help of Native Americans and becoming acquainted with new crops is the real story. They also note that a major cause of famine at early settlements was a lack of preparation rather than economic incentives:

The Virginia settlers came to the New World thinking that they could find gold or a route to the Pacific Ocean via the Chesapeake Bay, and make a quick buck by setting up a trading station like others were establishing in the East Indies.

The Times account doesn’t answer all our questions. We’d like to see a historian’s take on the accounts of how productivity increased once the colonists got rid of collective property. For while it does seem reasonable that economic incentives would be less relevant in the situation of the early settlers – when they did not have enough to eat and as many as half their number lay sick or dying – that does not mean the colonists didn’t learn the benefits of private property and such.

But using the Thanksgiving holiday to make political or economic points today seems problematic. For as many of our readers may have noticed, a Silicon Valley lesson can be gleaned from the story. It was the original investors of the expedition who designed the “collectivist” system in order to maximize profits. Should we also gather around the table this Thanksgiving and teach kids why they should never listen to their investors?

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google PlusTo get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list.