What follows is a true story – actually, two true stories, or the same story that occurred in two different places in very different times and circumstances. Read on to find out where.
They had been discussing amongst themselves in pairs and small groups for months, concerned with their poverty and lack of progress in improving crop yields, so important to feeding themselves and building a thriving community. What they’d been doing, it seemed, should have succeeded. They all worked the same fields together – clearing, tilling, sowing, weeding, and reaping – everyone in the same fields at the same time. Anyone who might be weak in one skill should have had that weakness made up by others working beside them, with everyone benefitting from everyone else’s unique abilities.
They all had a common purpose. But for the occasional troublemaker, present in every community, they liked each other, helped each other, and took care of each other when some among them fell ill. And, everybody got an equal share of the yearly harvest, accounting for family size. But something was amiss. Their harvests were meager, more meager than the farmers knew they should be.
So they were finally all together, in the same room, discussing the problem and deliberating what to do about it. They all agreed it was not a problem of bad soil. Their problem was not a lack of knowledge or a lack of skill. With accusations flying back and forth, they realized that none of them was truly working as hard as he was capable of doing. But why?
Because they got the same share of the yearly output regardless of their personal effort. It was easy to let others do the work and still get a share, but since everybody saw it the same way, nobody was working to their full capabilities.
The solution was simple. They’d divide the fields and work their own plots individually, keeping the gains for themselves.
The next year, the harvest was bountiful, the best, in fact, they’d ever seen. And since most had produced more than they could eat, everybody had more because of trade.
This story has likely played out many times in many settings for ages, but one instance is especially relevant for Thanksgiving because it involved the Pilgrims, that community of religious zealots who wanted to separate from the Church of England and who founded Plymouth Colony. For three years, they practiced a form of extreme socialism where all work was shared, including household chores where women were assigned to cook communally and wash other families’ clothes. William Bradford, the colony’s repeatedly re-elected governor, described this briefly in his history, based on his diary. He relates no detail concerning their deliberations before they decided to move away from socialism and to free enterprise except to say that,
“after much debate, the Governor, with the advice of the chief among them, allowed each man to plant corn for his own household… So every family was assigned a parcel of land… This was very successful. It made all hands very industrious, so that 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 plant corn, while before they would allege weakness and inability; and to have compelled them would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.”
“The failure of the experiment of communal service, which was tried for several years, and by good and honest men proves the emptiness of the theory of Plato and other ancients, applauded by some of later times, — that the taking away of private property, and the possession of it in community, by a commonwealth, would make a state happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For in this instance, community of property (so far as it went) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment which would have been to the general benefit and comfort.”
A year later, Bradford went on describe their circumstances after moving to a free enterprise system:
“But before I come to other things I must say a word about their planting this year. They felt the benefit of their last year’s harvest; for by planting corn on their own account they managed, with a great deal of patience, to overcome famine… The settlers now began to consider corn more precious than silver; and those that had some to spare began to trade with the others for small things, by the quart, pottle, and peck, etc.; for they had not money, and if they had, corn was preferred to it.”
A continent and an ocean away, 355 years later, the same story played out in a little village in China called Xiaogang. The same communal service, at least in farming, was practiced, imposed by China’s authoritarian Communist Party rather than by idealism. The same meager harvests were suffered. The farmers grumbled and debated for years in the same way. And they knew they were capable of so much more. So one day, after the farmers met and decided to divide the land and farm individually, they wrote a contract.
Unlike the Pilgrims, who were self-governing, Xiaogang’s farmers had to be concerned about what would happen if the Communist government found out they were not farming collectively. So the contract had to be made and signed in secret. Among its agreed provisions was a promise that if any of their number were arrested for rejecting communal farming, the others would raise the arrested man’s children.
The farmers of Xiaogang worked very hard, with renewed enthusiasm, secretly competing with each other to produce the largest yields. When Xiaogang’s harvest broke records for how plentiful it was, Communist authorities knew something was amiss and investigated. But as it happened, Mao Zedong was dead. Deng Xiaoping was in power, and when the contract came to light, instead of being punished, the farmers were held up as an example of a new way for China to proceed. Today, that contract is held in reverence.
These two stories, 355 years and thousands of miles apart, teach us that all humans respond to incentives and are self-interested. Thus, giving everyone equal shares as a way to guarantee security actually results in poverty and insecurity. As William Bradford put it, rather than socialism, “God in His wisdom saw that another plan of life was fitter for them.”
Bradford quotes are from: Bradford, William, Bradford’s History of the Plymouth Settlement; 1608-1650, rendered into modern English by Harold Paget and published in 1909, originally titled Of Plymouth Plantation, reprint by Mantle Ministries: San Antonio, TX, 1988, pp. 115-116, 141-142. For the story of Xiaogang, listen to NPR’s “The Secret Document That Transformed China.”