Thursday, November 24, 2011

How a Job Guaranty Led to Thanksgiving

Last year around this time I did a post addressing what I perceived to be some falsehoods promulgated by John Stossel and Rush Limbaugh about the economic details and progression of events leading up to the first Thanksgiving in the New England Colony of Plymouth. HuffPo also addressed the Limbaugh thing last year here.

Long story short: Limbaugh goes out every year at this time and claims that the system in the Colony was first "socialism" and that was failing and then they converted to "capitalism" or a "free market" and they lived happily ever after; then last year apparently Stossel glommed onto this Limbaugh thing and did his own twisted take on it. Here is a link to my write up last year and I still stand by my take there for the most part.

So I had hoped to revisit this issue this year at this time and have been reading a bit from the actual account of Governor Bradford of the Plymouth Colony; there is a free Google book online. The government and economic arrangements in the Colony do not appear to be as simple as most apparently believe. It reads like there were several settlements within the overall Colony that had some autonomy in how they arranged their own economies. So there was not just some sort of homogeneous group of "Pilgrims" who all lived in the same community and ran things one certain way, which is what you have to believe if you believe the Limbaugh/Stossel story, in addition to believing that they all only wanted to eat "corn on the cob".

So if you look at the post I put up here last year, there indeed was a point where government leadership intervened and changed the arrangements within one of the settlements that was under the leadership of a Mr. Weston that was failing, to one where each family was allotted land on which for them to grow corn (which I surmised could have been both used as food and a feedstock). This is the event that Limbaugh/Stossel seizes on as a transition from "socialism" to "capitalism"; I'm sorry Rushbo, but if you read Bradford's complete account surrounding this event, it looks like it was in some ways almost exactly the opposite!

You can read this portion of Bradford's account here for yourself; but apparently the subject settlement was in the former case operating in quite a "free market" of chaos. Here's an excerpt:

It may be thought Strang that these people* should fall to these extremities in so short a time, being left competently provided when ye ship left them, and had an addition by that moyetie of corn that was got by trade, besids much they gott of ye Indans wher they lived, by one means & other. It must needs be their great disorder, for they spent excesseivly whilst they had, or could get it; and, it may be, wasted parte away among ye Indeans (for he yl was their cheef was taxed by some amongst them for keeping Indean women, how truly I know not). And after they begane to come into wants, many sould away their cloathes and bed coverings; others (so base were they) became servants to ye Indeans, and would cutt them woode & fetch them water, for a cap full of corne; others fell to plaine stealing, both night & day, from ye Indeans, of which they greevosly complained. In ye end, they came to that misery, that some starved & dyed with could & hunger. One in geathering shell-fish was so weake as he stuck fast in ye mudd, and was found dead in ye place. At last most of them left their dwellings & scatered up & downe in ye [94] woods, & by ye water sids, wher they could find ground nuts & clames, hear 6. and ther ten. By which their cariages they became contemned & scorned of ye Indeans, and they begane greatly to insulte over them in a most insolente maner; insomuch, many times as they lay thus scatered abrod, and had set on a pot with ground nuts or shell-fish, when it was ready the Indeans would come and eate it up; and when night came, wheras some of them had a sorie blanket, or such like, to lappe them selves in, the Indeans would take it and let ye other lye all nighte in the could; so as their condition was very lamentable. Yea, in ye end they were faine to hange one of their men, whom they could not reclaime from stealing, to give ye Indeans contente.*
* That is, Weston's people. — Ed.

It certainly looks like it was quite a "free market" of chaos in the 'Weston' settlement complete with gluttony, kept native women, theft, deaths due to exposure, malnutrition, lynching, depression, lack of a coherent plan, etc. How would they escape these dire conditons? Well it's a good thing that Limbaugh wasn't in charge and would have "let the free market work", rather we pick up the account whereby:

All this whille no supply was heard of, neither knew they when they might expecte any. So they begane to thinke* how they might raise as much corne as they could, and obtaine a beter crope then they had done, that they might not still thus languish in miserie. At length, after much debate of things, the Govr (with ye advise of ye cheefest amongest them) gave way that they should set corne every man for his owne perticuler,f and in that regard trust to them selves; in all other things to goe on in ye generall way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcell of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end, only for present use (but made no devission for inheritance), and ranged all boys & youth under some familie. This had very good success;
I don't know about you, but this reads to me like an enlightened government had to intervene and wade into the utter chaos, and implement some judgement.

And in a move that reads like it came right out of the God of Israel's playbook from thousands of years before, assigned an allotment of land to the families in corresponding measure with their number and ability, with no ownership rights to private property. From the scriptures:

"To a larger group give a larger allotment, and to a smaller group a smaller one; each is to receive its allotment according to the number of those listed."
(Numbers 26:53-55)
The leadership of the Plymouth colonists were deeply devout and extremely well read into the Sacred Scriptures, as evidenced by Bradford's writings in this account, and apparently used the economic arrangements the God of Israel gave to them in that day as a basis to impose a system on this 'Weston' settlement that was intended to deliver the best economic results for they also. In fact if you continue to read the account, the author goes on to write:

The experience that was had in this coihone course and condition, tried sundrie years, and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanitie of that conceite of Platos & other ancients, applauded by some of later times; —that ye taking away of propertie, and bringing in coihunitie into a confone wealth, would make them happy and florishing; as if they were wiser then God.

So it is indeed deceptive to depict these events in any other light today. What was done was that the enlightened Plymouth government created legal arrangements whereby no settler could be separated from direct legal access to a means of subsistence, access to agricultural land was guaranteed to each family unit and no property ownership rights were conveyed. This was to, in effect, implement a "Job Guaranty" in Plymouth's agricultural based economy, as in a similar way, MMT proposes today to implement one in our contemporary multi-faceted, integrated economy.

The implementation of this Job Guaranty is what actually led to economic bounty and hence a "Thanksgiving".

The actual participants in these very serious life or death events here in North America hundreds of years ago, looked upon the choice of economic systems as NOT between one of "socialism" and "free market capitalism", but rather, a choice between an enlightened approach designed in accord with the action of the economic laws of the God of Israel vs. one that they looked upon as a Platonic approach of collectivism.

There is a BIG difference if you have been given eyes to see it.


googleheim said...

happy thanksgiving matt

what is the real story about the Pilgrims starving and got fed or led to local indigenous foods by Indians who saved the day.

Now adays it's nothing to do with the Indians and those who helped the "outsiders" who came over and could have just disappeared like all the other "pilgrims" whose settlements bit the dust.

something like "thank you for the food and now we are going to take your land and kill your people" ???

googleheim said...

WHAT IF the Indians introduced the barter and capitalism in the first place as THE way of life here.

If you remember Alexander de Toqueville ( someone who predicted the dichotomous relationship between Russia and USA .. like 200 years before it happened ! ) he said that the "equality of conditions" are in the very dirt of America and all the aristocraticisms of Europe fly off in the face of this and perish.

The Indians were a fractioned people - many many tribes. ALL doing barter and surviving not in CO-OPS and settlements regulated like communies as the WHITE boys were doing.

Therefore, I gather that providence came in the form of the foot trodding Indian who knew the land better than any farmer from Europe, who bartered his hunt among tribes and amongst his own tribe.

If American democracy was born from this equality of conditions which supposedly melted European artistocracy, then the American Capitalism must be intertwined with the same politic.

political economics - from Greek Polis for CITY and Oiko for House.

American political economics must had developed as such a mix and can be differentiated from European commerce perhaps, but I don't know.

Matt Franko said...


Happy Thanksgiving right back at you! (Don't eat too much ;)

These are very deep issues you bring up here... these Plymouth settlers were a "different breed" to me than the folks who later came over under the authority of the Monarchies/aristocracies of Europe.... I think capitalism/private property later came out of that crew. someone like Limbaugh cant see this.

It seems that the Plymouth people lived right amoung the Indians. And interacted with them both personally and economically, in both high times and low times... this was the early 1600s so it is quite early in the migration from Europe to North America. Things would go on to change looks like..


Carlos said...

I think it was actually Limburgers ancestor who came in and screwed everything up. What with all the lying, hypocrisy, cronyism, self interest and corruption and all that.

GeneHayward said...

A very interesting post that lead me to go read Bradfords writing BEFORE the famous excerpt used by the likes of Stossel/Limbaugh et al. I must confess, this is the FIRST time I have read Bradfords account and I have never heard of Thomas Weston before...

The lynchpin seems to be the role of Thomas Weston. I assume HE was the essentially the "central govt/planner" with absolute authority. The people he brought with him to settle the area seemed to be under the impression that that would be "commodity traders" primarily--trade pelts, fish, etc for food. Farming seemed to not be in the plan for them or Weston. They worked for Weston and had no expectation otherwise (would that be correct??)

Weston drove his colony into the ground--as a command/control form of economic organization. He was just a poor central planner.

I do not think I would characterize the economic orgainizaton of Weymouth as anything closely resembling "Free Markets". Even free markets require the presence of institutions to succeed (much to the chagrin of Libertarians). The wanton behavior of the people of Weymouth was not the result of the failure of Markets, but the failure of Weston as a "sovereign". Am I wrong on this point?

Perhaps I am just splitting hairs...

I submit this with no malice, just in the spirit of learning. I am not a poster looking for a fight or insults. I just came across your blog and thought it interesting...I will be back...Thank you for your time and attention...

Carlos said...

What's to fight. You sound like a decent, open minded person.

You make a perfectly good point..... there is no real systemic problem with central planning economies. Just many examples of poor governance and bad execution.

Just as a dysfunctional market price based economy suffers from poor governance and bad execution. I hate the term free markets because a good market is well regulated, serves public and addresses the aspirations of all members of society.

Carlos said...

That should read ..... Serves public purpose

Tom Hickey said...

The problem with command and planned economies in the past has been manyfold, mostly having to do with too much politics and too little technological ability. None of the factors show conclusively that a command economy or a planned economy is doomed to either fail or underproduce.

The biggest argument against all types of economic planning is the still unsolved problem of complexity. There is as yet no satisfactory model of a complex economy, let along the global economy, that would allow precise prediction of outcomes. We are still groping.

But we are getting closer as digital technology improves. The develop os AI should allow that bridging of this gap in the not too distant future.

In the meanwhile all applied economics ("political economy") is largely heuristic and depends on adjustment to feedback. Unfortunately, most economic systems are not set up institutionally to take these factors into consideration very well.

While this might be taken to argue for reliance on "the invisible hand," there is no good evidence that this avenue is a great deal better under imperfect competition, and perfect competition is unattainable for all practical purposes.

Matt Franko said...

Right Gene,

Weston was some type of "leader" or "manager" of a failing settlement looks like.

Interesting point you make where that settlement perhaps thought that they could make it on "trading" profits alone, without producing anything, I never thought about that (sounds like Wall Street in a way, ie not much "value added"). That requires more thought and investigation here.

And yes, probably not a "free market". But I was more trying to point out that Limbaugh has it wrong.

ie It was not "socialism" to "capitalism" type of transition.

To me it looks like it was high level government intervention. It wasnt "socialism" that failed, but maybe their "business plan" of "trading for a living" was what failed. Then the enlightened leadership at the Governor level just put the settlers directly in guaranteed contact with their means of subsistence and just let that "do it's thing". And they probably got the idea right out of the Scriptures.

This is a very nuanced point, but Limbaugh is deceiving when he says they transitioned to "capitalism", they did no such thing. They went to a Job Guaranty type of system whereby NOTHING (including the concept of private property) can stand in the way of an idividuals robust means of subsistence.

Thanks for coming by and bringing that new observation wrt "trading" into this...


Matt Franko said...


It was sort of like they were running a "hedge fund" of sorts at the Weston operations... Gene this is a great observation!...