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America's First Experiment With Socialism

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

The term “socialism” is being thrown around quite a bit these days, as those who love America’s great capitalist economy and republican form of government warn of an imminent demise. One wonders whether the term “socialism” has any meaning for those who never experienced the fear of communist or fascist global dominance—which probably represents most of the young Obama voters.

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George Santayana’s aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” should serve as a sober reminder that every generation is responsible for handing down the knowledge and wisdom attained by previous generations. Those who studied the revisionist-plundered history lessons in government schools may be surprised to learn America already experimented with socialism. Out of that failed experiment emerged our free-market, capitalist economic system.

America’s first experiment with socialism wasn’t Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, nor was it Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal—although both made sweeping changes to the nation’s underlying government structure and entrapped America in the bureaucratic quagmire of collectivism. No, America’s very first experiment with redistribution of wealth occurred before America was officially a nation.

In 1620, the Puritan Pilgrims arrived in the “desolate wilderness” of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Seeking escape from religious persecution in Europe, the Puritans risked their lives crossing the Atlantic to establish a new colony in the wilds of America. The Pilgrims decided that their new community would practice collectivism (socialism). All labor was communal, with men raising crops for all families, not just their own, and women engaged in domestic chores for their neighbors.

The Pilgrims’ Governor, William Bradford, described the folly of embracing the theory of collectivism:

“The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God.

“For this community was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men, that were most able and fit for labor and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. The strong had no more in division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labors everything else, thought it some indignity and disrespect unto them. And for men's wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands well brook it.”

The Pilgrims, a pious and decent people, discovered that even the best of men cannot thrive under socialism’s incentive-crushing system. This experiment with socialism—probably its best chance for success amongst such selfless, righteous people—failed miserably. The Puritans discovered that government cannot deny man’s inherent desire to work hard to provide for his own family and be rewarded when his labor exceeds his neighbor’s.

Having learned a valuable lesson about human nature, the Pilgrims established a new economic system that encouraged and rewarded personal initiative. Instead of a collectivist labor force, each family was given a plot of land on which to grow their own crops. Soon, each family was pulling its own weight. In fact, the harvest was so bountiful that the Pilgrims were able to trade with local Indians, and the colony prospered. Bradford reflected on the success of this capitalist approach to private labor:

“They had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. 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”. By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine, now God gave them plenty, and the faces of things were changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many, for which they blessed God. Indeed, their bounty was so great, that they had enough to not only trade among themselves but also with the neighboring Indians in the forest.”

Nowadays, the Puritans are maligned and disparaged by the politically correct for their religious devotion. But Americans should be thankful to these brave souls for not only bringing the concept of religious freedom across the Atlantic, but for surviving America’s first experiment with socialism. The misery they experienced under socialism led to the free-market economy later established by their posterity.

The appeal of socialism is that it seems a benevolent form of government, where everyone works to help his fellow citizens. But, as the Puritans discovered, socialism denies man’s innate incentive to work hard for his own family, not his neighbors. Capitalism, while not perfect, gives man the incentive he needs to work hard for his family and thereby help his entire community—not by force, but out of true generosity. If America fails to learn from the mistakes of our ancestors, we’ll have forgotten the truth of Albert Einstein’s famous aphorism: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

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