Global Lessons from America’s Thanksgiving

Sometime next week, President Biden will follow his predecessors in a lifesaving celebration. But little notice will be given, as domesticated turkeys will be granted presidential pardons. However, these rituals are part of America’s Thanksgiving, a holiday full of tradition and filled with important lessons that can guide us all in times of global economic turmoil.

It all starts with globalization. Like many holidays, Thanksgiving has gone global. For whatever reason, people all over the world celebrate this distinctly North American holiday on the fourth Thursday of every November.

There is a common misconception that Thanksgiving is a religious holiday, as the first celebration involved praise worship by a colony of devout Christians after a bountiful harvest. However, this day has a wide secular appeal and unites all people of all faiths or who have no religions at all.

In all cases, divine intervention had nothing to do with the celebration associated with this feast day. Instead, it was the mundane changes in the economic system that the Pilgrim colony followed that led to a successful harvest and prompted the first day of Thanksgiving.

A full understanding of this assertion requires clarity in calculating Hajj’s progress. Every American schoolboy knows that the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts and founded New Plymouth in November 1620.

It has been erroneously reported that the Pilgrims celebrated their first Thanksgiving, shortly after their arrival, with some Native Americans. Although the Pilgrims were indebted to the local people for teaching them local practices, such as fertilizing corn with fish, the original Thanksgiving did not include any Native American people.

While the 3-day feast was after a shooting party in the fall of 1621, it was Not The first Thanksgiving. The harvest celebrated on the first Thanksgiving occurred much later, after the Pilgrims had abandoned the form of agrarian socialism they had followed since their arrival in the New World. In large part, the first Thanksgiving celebrated the exponential increase in production stemming from the pursuit of individualism and the incentives associated with free markets.

The historical background about Thanksgiving can be found in the records kept by the colony’s governor, William Bradford. He tells us that the English patrons of the pilgrims wished to keep crops and trade goods “in common stock”, dividing them along the lines of the religious beliefs of the colony.

Bradford wrote that this experiment in joint ownership of property was intended to allow the colony to flourish. Like other sectarian applications led to disastrous results. The Pilgrims found, as the Soviets discovered many centuries later, that individuals work harder and better when there are incentives that allow them to preserve and enjoy the fruits of their efforts.

Thus, faced with impending starvation in the early months of 1623, the pilgrims called a meeting to try to escape the almost certain death of starvation. (Indeed, the Pilgrims’ initial experience mirrored an earlier unfortunate experience from colonial times in Jamestown, where half of the original settlers either starved or fell victim to disease.)

In return, they decided to abandon their collective arrangement of distribution on the basis of “from each according to his means, to each according to his needs.” Instead, according to Bradford, from then on, “they should lay corn to every man for his own need.”

The new arrangements included a limited form of private property rights, although land tenure generally continued. But each family cultivated their own plot of land and could keep what they grew, even if they could not hand the land over to their heirs. (Similar agrarian reforms began in China in 1978 under the direction of Deng Xiaoping. After centuries of famine cycles, China is now self-sufficient in many foods and a net exporter of others.)

The colonists greatly increased their diligence, but the following summer found them in the throes of drought. In keeping with their religious beliefs, they offered appropriate remorse for their sins.

When the drought broke and their crop was saved, the Pilgrims viewed this as an act of providence. In any case, their new economic system based on individual efforts ensures that they can produce enough food for the future.

Thus, Thanksgiving is an opportunity to pay tribute to the institutions of individualism, private property, and liberty. Despite recent disappointments in the performance of the global economy, the system of freedom embodied in America’s national heritage has made it a rich and welcoming country. In fact, countries with similar institutional arrangements are likely to be rich and enjoy the most freedoms. And for that, they should all be thankful.

Christopher Lengl

Christopher Lengl

Christopher Lengl is a Senior Visiting Fellow at AIER, Visiting Professor of Economics at Escuela de Negocios at Universidad Francisco MarroquĂ­n in Guatemala, Researcher at the Center for Civil Society (New Delhi), International Political Economics Advisor to the Asian Institute of International Affairs Diplomacy (AIDIA – Kathmandu), International Senior Fellow at the Equity Institute (USA), Senior Fellow at the Center for Market Education (Malaysia), Senior Visiting Fellow, advocacy (Colombo, Sri Lanka).

His research interests lie in the fields of political economy and international economics with a focus on emerging market economies and public policy reform in Eastern and Central Europe, East Asia, Latin America and South Africa.

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