Video: Remember America’s first experiment with socialism?
posted at 8:21 pm on March 21, 2016 by Ed Morrissey
Spoiler: No, we don’t, at least not from personal experience — and it’s unlikely that most Americans even know of the events Larry Schweikart recounts for Prager University through their formal education, either. The University of Dayton history professor tells the tale of two colonies that nearly failed thanks to a dalliance with commue-based economics, which fell victim to the same sadly predictable consequences seen when 20th-century nations tried the same model on vast scales. The Jamestown colony in particular suffered through two years of famine and death before Captain John Smith called a halt to the attempt at imposing a Utopia:
The early colonists began their adventure with what they thought was a beautiful idea. They set up a common storehouse of grain from which people were supposed to take what they needed and put back what they could. Lands were also held in common and were worked in common. The settlers owned no land of their own. Though there was no name for this system, it was an ideal socialist commune. And you can probably guess what happened. It began to fall apart almost immediately. As the colonists learned, when everyone is entitled to everything, no one’s responsible for anything. A colonist who started his workday early or stayed late received the same provision of food as a colonist who showed up late, went home early, or didn’t work at all.
After about two years, the settlement was reduced to eating shoelaces and rats. Half of them died of starvation. Captain John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) took control of the colony and scrapped the socialist model. Each colonist received his own parcel of land. Private property had come to the New World. “He who won’t work, won’t eat!” Smith told them, citing the Biblical admonition. Well they worked. And they ate. And the colony was saved.
The same story unfolded further north in the Plymouth colony 10 years later. Although this was a Puritan colony with religious goals, its plan was the same as Jamestown’s. And it also failed. As its young governor, William Bradford, noted, by adopting the communal system “We thought we were wiser than God.” So they quickly abandoned the commune for private ownership. Soon, they had an abundance, which they celebrated with the holiday we now know as “Thanksgiving.” Over the next 150 years, this hard-learned lesson, that men should be responsible for their own economic fate, became conventional wisdom in the colonies.
One might even chalk up the utter and obvious failure of such a system to the better natures of these colonists. As F.A. Hayek would write later in The Road to Serfdom, these socialist systems tend to produce leadership of an increasingly ruthless variety in order to maintain the power balance favoring the elites at the top. Failure does not lend itself to correction, but instead to ever-growing authoritarianism in the hope that the failures are personal and not systemic. Hayek’s predictions proved all too prescient in the middle and later parts of the 2oth century — which should be lesson enough to avoid socialism even without the little-remembered communal failures of the first English colonists in America.
That, however, would take “the wisdom of experience,” as Schweikart calls it, and one cannot access that wisdom if unaware of the experience that generated it — either 400 years ago or within living memory today.