How did the first Thanksgiving happen? It was a celebration of a big harvest at the Plymouth colony. The Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony had organized their farm economy along communal lines. The goal was to share the work and produce equally. Each person got an equal share of the total production of the entire colony, and they truly followed the idea of “to each according to his need, from each according to his ability.”
What happened here is that it wasn’t long before people figured out that they got their share no matter how much or how little they worked. The colony was soon at the brink of starvation. This went on for two years, until as Governor William Bradford said in his diary: “So as it well appeared that famine must still ensue the next year also, if not some way prevented… The colonists began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length after much debate of things, (I) (with the advice of the chiefest among them) 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.”
In other words, they switched from communism to a private market. The results were dramatic. The next year (1623) the crop was so plentiful, they decided to celebrate with the feast that is now known as Thanksgiving.
“This had very good success,” Bradford wrote, “for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine, now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many.”
What Plymouth suffered under this plan was what economists today call the tragedy of the commons. The problem has been known since ancient Greece. As Aristotle noted, “That which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it.”
If individuals can take from a common pot regardless of how much they put in it, each person has an incentive to do as little as possible and take as much as possible because what one fails to take will just be taken by someone else.