Milton Friedman: Giving Thanks for Free Enterprise

Milton Friedman (1912-2006) was one of the greatest economists of the 20th century. But, along with his academic work, he was a gifted writer of economics for a lay audience. For a number of years, he wrote a regular column for Newsweek, alternating with the Keynesian economist Paul Samuelson.

Friedman was also interested in the politics of a free society, as well as its economics. Indeed, he argued that a free society needed a free economy and vice versa. In this column from Thanksgiving, 1974, Friedman looks at private enterprise proved itself superior to ‘common’ ownership in the early years of the Plymouth colony.

In this Thanksgiving season, as we seek the roots of our present discontent, we shall do well to ponder the experience of our Pilgrim fathers, as graphically recorded by William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Colony during its formative years. Here with some excerpts from his “Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–1647,”* telling how the initial policy of cultivating the lands in common, and sharing the produce collectively, was replaced by private ownership.

“So they 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, the Governor … gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other things to go on in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number, for that end, only for present use … and ranged all boys and youth under some family. 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 experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients … that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men, that were most able and fit for labor and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. 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. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labors and victuals, clothes, etc., with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignity and disrespect into them. 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. Upon the point all being to have alike, and all to do alike, they thought themselves in the like condition, and one as good as another; and so, if it did not cut off those relations that God hath set amongst men, yet it did at least much diminish and take off the mutual respects that should be preserved amongst them. And would have been worse if they had been men of another condition. Let none object this is men’s corruption, and nothing to the course itself. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in His wisdom saw another course fitter for them …

“… 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, for which they blessed God. And the effect of their particular planting was well seen, for all had, one way and other, pretty well to bring the year about; and some of the abler sort and more industrious had to spare, and sell to others; so as any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day …

“That they might therefore increase their tillage to better advantage, they made suit to the Governor to have some portion of land given them for continuance, and not by yearly lot. For by that means, that which the more industrious had brought into good culture (by much pains) one year, came to leave it the next, and often another might enjoy it; so as the dressing of their lands were the more slighted over, and to less profit. Which being well considered, their request was granted.”