I’ve enjoyed studying the Pilgrims’ journey to America and subsequent settlement for over two decades. As I gathered information about the Pilgrims it was instructive to note that their early experiment with communal property (socialism) resulted in lack of food and strife. As soon as they switched to a free enterprise approach there was plenty of food for everybody. This is a good case study illustrating the intrinsic value of private property and the importance to a society’s future of rejecting socialism.

How Private Property Saved the Pilgrims


Bradford’s comments make it clear that common ownership demoralized the community far more than the tax. It was not Pilgrims laboring for investors that caused so much distress but Pilgrims laboring for other Pilgrims. Common property gave rise to internecine conflicts that were much more serious than the transatlantic ones. The industrious (in Plymouth) were forced to subsidize the slackers (in Plymouth). The strong “had no more in division of victuals and clothes” than the weak. The older men felt it disrespectful to be “equalized in labours” with the younger men..

This suggests that a form of communism was practiced at Plymouth in 1621 and 1622. No doubt this equalization of tasks was thought (at first) the only fair way to solve the problem of who should do what work in a community where there was to be no individual property: If everyone were to end up with an equal share of the property at the end of seven years, everyone should presumably do the same work throughout those seven years. The problem that inevitably arose was the formidable one of policing this division of labor: How to deal with those who did not pull their weight?

The Pilgrims had encountered the free-rider problem. Under the arrangement of communal property one might reasonably suspect that any additional effort might merely substitute for the lack of industry of others. And these “others” might well be able-bodied, too, but content to take advantage of the communal ownership by contributing less than their fair share. As we shall see, it is difficult to solve this problem without dividing property into individual or family-sized units. And this was the course of action that William Bradford wisely took.

The Soviet Union and other Communist governments repeated the mistakes of the Pilgrims on an intensified level in the 20th Century. Millions lost their lives from these horrific experiments. America is treading the path (‘spread the wealth around’) rejected by the Pilgrims and by those who wrote our Constitution. Will we learn from history and change, or repeat the same mistakes?

Related: The Pilgrims’ Real Thanksgiving Lesson