America’s first attempt at Socialism (Spoiler: it failed)


The current threat of Socialism in the United States is not anything new. In fact, Socialism’s presence in America stretched as far back as the 1620s. It all started when the Pilgrims landed in America. The mainstream story says that the Pilgrims were victims of a harsh winter, and were saved by American Indians who taught them how to plant crops. Well, that is not all of it. The Pilgrims continued to starve for two more years despite learning new farming techniques. It wasn’t their lack of farming skills that resulted in three years of starvation, the blame should be laid on a dysfunctional economic system.

The Mayflower landed in Plymouth, Virginia in 1620. The colonists were funded by the Virginia Company of London and the Virginia Company of Plymouth, who made it a condition for all colonists to pool their produce and resources and share it among each other. Food and supplies were distributed equally to everyone, even to those who didn’t contribute, and it was forbidden to grow your own food.

However, this plan didn’t go as intended, according to William Bradford, Governor of the Plymouth colony. People did not work in the plantations and farms because they thought it was a waste of their time. Many colonists thought it was unfair that their output was distributed equally among everyone, even those who didn’t do anything at all. How was it fair that they didn’t get to keep all their output, which they worked hard for, while the freeloaders received an equal share?

To make matters worse, theft was rampant. Most thievery occurred at night, when crops were broken into and contents taken away. A Thanksgiving meal did occur, though it was hardly a celebration. It was hardly a meal, either, because there wasn’t enough to feed the colonists. The inhabitants of the settlement simply thanked God for being alive.

This brings us two important factors characterising Socialism that contribute to its demise. Firstly, when everyone owns the means of production, many people avoid work by freeloading off the efforts of others. They correctly assume that the fruits of other people’s labour will be equally distributed among everyone. So why bother working? Secondly, many people are discouraged from working because they don’t want to see their output distributed among other undeserving people, especially the free loaders. Why should they commit their effort when they are given the same amount as those people who didn’t work at all?

This situation prompted the decision to change the system. In 1623, each family was given a small piece of land as their own property for them to use as they wished. Bradford wrote:

“This had very good success, for it made all hands industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.”

When land was divided into private lots, with each family given control over their own output, production shot up. This system had the incentive factor, where the owners of each private plot were motivated to work hard and keep the fruits of their labour because they could sustain themselves, grow richer as well as trade with each other. Not only did the famine end, the Pilgrims were actually able to export corn. The free market system allowed them to feed themselves and prosper financially by being able to trade and export their produce.

This wasn’t the only circumstance where a Socialist system resulted in hunger and freeloading. In Jamestown, which was founded in 1607, only one-fifth of the men worked, while the other four-fifths took advantage of the output produced by the hard-working minority. It got so bad that in the winter of 1609-10, the population of the town dropped from 500 to 60. However, this was reversed after Jamestown adopted free market policies, which resulted in an effect akin to Plymouth. Ralph Hamor, in 1614, said “we reaped not so much corn from the labors of thirty men as three men have done for themselves now”. Well, there you go.

This story is not without its opponents, who claim this experiment was more like shareholders in a corporation than actual socialists. After all, the settlers weren’t Socialists, and they didn’t have a Socialist background. However, their management system was indeed socialist, despite the ultimate goal being to provide private profit. All resources and means of production were commonly owned by the colonists. So yes, they weren’t Socialists by name, but their system was. And that’s the key factor. It is safe to conclude that free market Capitalism works well with the human condition, while Socialism doesn’t. Socialism results in the majority living off the production of the minority, either because they’re lazy or because they’re not motivated. In free market Capitalism, however, people are incentivised as it provides an opportunity to meet their basic needs while also achieve greater levels of prosperity through free enterprise.


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