Thankful for Private Property

by Don Boudreaux on November 24, 2004

in History

One of the outstanding works of modern legal scholarship is Robert Ellickson’s article “Property in Land.”  It appears in the April 1993 issue of the Yale Law Journal.  (For those of you with JSTOR, here’s the link.)


Here’s an excerpt on the first settlement at Plymouth, Massachusetts.


To finance their voyage, the Pilgrims formed a joint stock company with London investors.  At the investors’ insistence, the settlers agreed to pool output, land, capital, and profits during their first seven years abroad.  From this “common stock,” residents of the colony were to receive food and other necessities, and at the end of the seven-year period, the land and other assets were to be “equally divided betwixt” the investors and the settlers.  The colonists initially complied with the spirit of this contract.  Although they planted household gardens almost from the start, they collectivized initial field and livestock operations.  The setters had some agricultural successes, but they were unable to grow corn in their common field.  Within six months of reaching Plymouth, almost one-half of the population had perished from disease.


In 1624 the Plymouth colonists deviated from the investors’ plan and assigned each family from one to ten acres, depending on the number of family members.  This greatly increased productivity.


[Parcelization] had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corne was planted then other waise. . . .  The women now wente willingly into the field, and tooke their little-ones with them to set corne, which before would aledg weaknes and inabilitie; whome to have compelled would have bene thought great tiranie and oppression.  [William Bradford, History of Plymouth Plantation.] 

Tomorrow, we Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving.  We would be turkeys if we failed to understand the true source of our bounty.  That source is not the land itself – it is not dumb luck – it is not god inexplicably smiling upon Europeans who occupy the North American continent: it is consistent and widespread reliance upon private-property markets.


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