Early colonists celebrated their harvest as early as 1621, with a three-day-long festival involving both natives and newcomers. President George Washington named Nov. 26, 1789 as a day of thanksgiving devoted to: “the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” And President Abraham Lincoln created the modern Thanksgiving Day tradition when he announced, in 1863, that the third Thursday of November would henceforth be celebrated as an official national holiday.
Today’s celebrations revolve around food; it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without heaping helpings of turkey and pumpkin pie. But that, like setting aside a holiday to give thanks, is uniquely American. After all, for most of human history people lived from hand to mouth. They considered themselves fortunate if they could eke out just enough to feed themselves.
It’s worth giving thanks, then, simply for the existence of the American food supply. But that raises an important question: Just why does the U.S. generate such an abundance of food? The answer is that our government promotes a (mostly) free market in the production, distribution and sale of food. That means prices are flexible: they rise when there are more food buyers than sellers. But that also prevents shortages. You can get what you need, you just must be willing to pay the price.
Take this year as an example. The American Midwest suffered through its worst drought in more than 50 years. Corn production was down 13 percent, prices were up 63 percent. And yet food remains plentiful here.
Compare that to a recent famine in Africa. In 2011, tens of thousands of Somalians perished during a drought. The president of Refugees International wrote: “the famine is a result of a lack of governance and direct human actions which have deprived millions of people access to food.” Wolfgang Fengler, an economist for the World Bank, adds: “Droughts have occurred over and again, but you need bad policymaking for that to lead to a famine.”