Monday, December 10, 2012

The Volokh Conspiracy -- How Private Property Rights Saved the Pilgrims

Link: (via

Today is Thanksgiving, and there is much to be thankful for. Not least on the list is the institution of private property, without which the Pilgrims might not have survived, and we would not have this holiday. Economist Benjamin Powell recounts the story here
Tom Bethell gave a more detailed account in this 1999 article.
In my 2010 Thanksgiving post on this subject, I noted that Thanksgiving is also a good time to disabuse ourselves of the longstanding myth that Native Americans had no private property rights and opposed the concept when it was supposedly first introduced by whites. In that post, I also explained why the lessons of the Pilgrims' experience with private and communal property are in no way negated by the fact that the Plymouth Plantation was a corporation.
UPDATE #2: For the benefit of various commenters, it's worth nothing that, contrary to popular mythology, Native Americans made extensive use of property rights too. Other commenters try to defeat my point by noting that Plymouth Plantation was a corporation. However, corporations had a very different status in 17th century England than today. They were not purely private organizations, but individually chartered by the government to carry out purposes specifically mandated by the state. Until the establishment of general incorporation laws in the 19th century, it was not possible for any private party to form a corporation at will for the purpose of pursuing its own goals. More to the point, this corporation, like some others at the time, was specifically created to carry out governmental functions: it was given a monopoly of force, control of the justice system, and every other power typically wielded by the state. Local governments in England were legally referred to as "corporations" and regulated by such laws as the Corporation Act of 1661. The fact that a government is called a "corporation" for legal purposes does not change its nature. If the United States government changed its name to "USA, Inc." tomorrow, it would not thereby cease to be a government.

Like many property teachers, I sometimes encounter the persistent myth that Native Americans don't believe in private property, had no concept of property rights before Europeans arrived, and so on. But, as Anderson explained in this 1997 article, many Indian tribes used property rights for a wide range of purposes long before whites arrived. Ironically, the myth of Native American hostility to property rights was first developed by 18th and 19th century whites as a justification for dispossessing Indians of their land on the grounds that they didn't really own it. In the 20th century, the myth was taken up by some left-wing environmentalists and others in order to show that Native Americans had a supposedly superior collectivist ethic that whites should emulate.

In the past, most if not all North American indigenous peoples had a strong belief in individual property rights and ownership. Frederick Hodge (1910) noted that individual private ownership was "the norm" for North American tribes.
Likewise, Julian Steward (1938, 253) asserted that among Native Americans communal property was limited, and Frances Densmore (1939) concluded that the Makah tribe in the Pacifi�c Northwest had property rights similar to Europeans.' These early twentieth-century historians and anthropologists had the advantage of actually interviewing tribal members who had lived in pre-reservation Indian society.
By the late 1940s, however, these original and fi�rsthand sources of information had died, and false myths and historical distortions began to take dominant shape. By the mid–1960s, the tone in many college history books, history-inspired fi�lms and novels, and even speeches had completely changed (Mika 1995). A typical historical distortion, for example, is found in Baldwin and Kelley's best-selling 1965 college textbook, The Stream of American History, where they write, "Indians had little comprehension of the value of money, the ownership of land . . . and so land sharks and grog sellers found it easy to mulct them of their property"(208).

Terry Anderson (1995) attributes the beginning of the myth to settlers seeking farm land in the Great Plains, who interacted only with nomadic tribes that did not view land as an important asset. These settlers mistakenly generalized the lack of interest in land to infer a lack of property rights among all tribes. We argue that this fi�ction was further propagated in the nineteenth century by a virtual army of East Coast newspaper journalists, dime novelists, and Washington politicians who, in spite of writing about Native Americans, often had little contact with tribal groups. Reported, retold, and unchallenged, these incorrect perceptions ended up as the basis for later laws and institutional codifi�cation.

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