It’s astonishing and a little horrifying that America’s elites know so little about their country’s history. Case in point: Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute. Jared is an influential left-ish economic polemicist and a sometime adviser to Barack Obama on economic affairs. I’ve debated with Jared dozens of times over the past several years, but what happened this week was especially disturbing.
I explained that the first Thanksgiving was a celebration of abundance after a period of socialism and starvation. It seems Bernstein never heard about this chapter in U.S. history; he called it an “exercise in revisionist history.” Admitting that he had never read the memoirs of Plymouth governor William Bradford, he nevertheless dismissed the story as untrue. But the facts are undeniable, and there is nothing to revise. Bradford’s historical accounts, which I quote below, have been read by schoolchildren for over 300 years.
The members of the Plymouth colony had arrived in the New World with a plan for collective property ownership. Reflecting the current opinion of the aristocratic class in the 1620s, their charter called for farmland to be worked communally and for the harvests to be shared.
“The strong, or man of parts, 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.”
You probably will not be surprised to hear that the colonists starved. Men were unwilling to work to feed someone else’s children. Women were unwilling to cook for other women’s husbands. Fields lay largely untilled and unplanted.
“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.”
Famine came as soon as they ate through their provisions. After famine came plague. Half the colony died. Unlike most socialists, they learned from their mistakes, giving each person a parcel of land to tend to for themselves.
“At length, after much debate of things, the Governor … gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves … And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number, for that end.”
The results were overwhelmingly beneficial. Men worked hard, even though before they had constantly pleaded illness. Fields were not only tilled and planted but also diligently harvested. Colonists traded with the surrounding Indian nation and learned to plant maize, squash and pumpkin and to rotate these crops from year to year. The harvest was bountiful, and new colonists immigrated to the thriving settlement.
“This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. 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.”
The colonists threw off the statist intellectual fashions of their day. They concluded that the ancient principles of private property as recorded in the Ten Commandments were superior to the utopian speculations of Plato and his 17th-century imitators. Human nature was a fact of life, self-centered, fallen. No cadre of elite philosopher kings could change the cold facts of reality.
“The experience that was had in this common course and condition … may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s … and that the taking away of property … would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God.”
It’s genuinely scary to me that a leading member of the left intellectual establishment–a group that will shortly rule both of our elected branches–doesn’t know about America’s first experiment with socialism. On top of that, he doesn’t care to know. Neither did the philosopher kings who, ignorantly and blithely, imposed on our forebears a system that led to malnutrition, pestilence and mass fatalities.
But it has always been that way. Men in ivory towers, ivied halls, foundation-funded think tanks or bustling newsrooms dream up new forms of social organization. They write books, policy papers and five-year plans telling us all that is wrong with the way we live now and what could be done if we simply adhere to their analyses.
When the famines, tortilla riots or credit collapses come, the rest of us have to deal with the consequences. It has been proved that the “vanity and conceit” (Bradford’s phrase, not mine) of the philosopher kings ends in disaster–but by then they’ve already moved on to something else. When we remind them that their ideas have been tried–and found wanting–in the past, they cavalierly deny history, clap their hands over their ears and cry even more loudly for “change.” If we listen to them, we deserve what we will get.
This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.
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