John Stossel

Historian Edmund S. Morgan, in "American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia," describes what happened in 1609-1610: "There are 500 people in the colony now. And they are starving. They scour the woods listlessly for nuts, roots and berries. And they offer the only authentic examples of cannibalism witnessed in Virginia. One provident man chops up his wife and salts down the pieces. Others dig up graves to eat the corpses. By spring only sixty are left alive."

After that season, the colony was abandoned for years.

The lesson that a commons is often undesirable is all around us. What image comes to mind if I write "public toilet"? Consider traffic congestion and poor upkeep of many publicly owned roads. But most people don't understand that the solution is private property.

When natural resources, such as fish and trees, dwindle, the first impulse is to say, "Stop capitalism. Make those things public property." But they already are public -- that's the problem.

If no one owns the fishing rights to a given part of the ocean -- or the exclusive, long-term logging rights to part of the forest -- people have an incentive to get there first and take all they can before the next guy does. Resources are overused instead of conserved. We don't maintain others' property the way we maintain our own.

Colonists in Plymouth nearly starved because they didn't understand that. In Jamestown, some were driven to cannibalism.

But no one starves when ranchers are allowed to own land and cattle. Or turkeys.

Private ownership does good things. Be thankful for it this week.


John Stossel

John Stossel is host of "Stossel" on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of "No They Can't: Why Government Fails, but Individuals Succeed." To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at >johnstossel.com. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. ©Creators Syndicate