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A Pilgrim in the Marketplace
Grant D. Bosse
As Originally Published in the Concord Monitor
I don’t think I would have done well in 1621. I haven’t been hiking or camping in years. My shooting skills are limited to paper silhouettes. And the only fires I’ve lit recently have been in a barbecue grill or a wood pellet stove. I don’t even want to think about going through the day without hot and cold running water.
The Pilgrims of Plymouth who survived two months at sea and a brutal New England winter celebrated their first harvest in the autumn of 1621, inviting the nearby Wampanoag tribe for a feast of thanksgiving. The Pilgrims likely went out “fowling” for local ducks, while the Wampanoag brought several deer. The meals would have likely included squash, onions, cabbage, shellfish and a mashed corn porridge known as samp. Following the feast, the Detroit Lions began an annual tradition by losing by three touchdowns.
In a letter back to England, future colonial governor Edward Winslow described the abundance of the New World:
“For fish and fowl, we have great abundance. Fresh cod in the summer is but coarse meat with us. Our bay is full of lobsters all the summer, and affords a variety of other fish. In September we can take a hogshead of eels in a night, with small labor, and can dig them out of their beds all the winter. We have mussels and others at our doors. Oysters we have none near, but we can have them brought by the Indians when we will. All the springtime the earth sends forth naturally very good salad herbs. Here are grapes, white and red, and very sweet and strong also; strawberries, gooseberries, raspberries, etc.; plums of three sorts, white, black, and red, being almost as good as a damson; abundance of roses, white, red and damask; single, but very sweet indeed.”
Winslow lost his wife over the first winter. He soon married Susannah White, who had just been widowed as well. Yet his letter proclaims the bounty and opportunity of his new home, and gives advice for the “industrious men” who would join them.
We laud the resilience of this small band of religious refugees, seeking freedom of worship across the ocean from civilization.
Yet we should not glorify the harsh conditions that they survived. Self-sufficiency is a path to abject poverty. I’m thankful I can rely on strangers for my daily needs, and don’t have to worry about where I’m getting my food, water and firewood as the days become shorter and the nights colder.
I have no idea who installed the plumbing in my house, or who designed the two-in-one showerhead that helps clear the cobwebs out of my brain each morning. No one at Crest or Oral B went to work out of altruistic concern for my dental hygiene. I didn’t promise anyone I’d go get a coffee and a bagel this morning, but both were conveniently available on command.
We owe our current prosperity, literally unthinkable in 1621, not to self-sufficiency or charity, but through the self-interested actions of people we’ll never meet. The tremendous efficiencies unleashed through trade and specialization are the true American cornucopia.
Living standards are higher for everyone, and so are our standards for what is acceptable.
Fortunately, the wealth created through the free market affords us the opportunity to help those less fortunate. Capitalism is not incompatible with charity, or with safety-net programs funded through government taxation. But it is voluntary private action that creates the resources we would like to redirect to the poor.
The lesson I take from that first Thanksgiving was the cooperation between two very different tribes. The Pilgrims and the Wampanoag helped each other survive, enriching both groups. We have fallen tragically short of that standard so often in the past 400 years, and not only with our treatment of Native American tribes. Our mercantile shortsightedness has led to wars, and slowed the growth in our prosperity.
Civilizations advanced before the spread of economic and political freedom, and we’ll keep moving forward even with an oversized government stifling innovation. But the pace of progress quickens only through trade. Free exchange of goods, services, and most importantly ideas, drives economic expansion. The self-organizing economy vastly outperforms the command economy, as it relies of the diffuse talent and drive of millions, rather than the limited knowledge of a few well-meaning elites. And that’s before we account for the inevitable corruption of central planning.
The Pilgrims would have starved without trade. When I rail against government interference in markets, whether it’s through excessive regulation, protectionism or favoritism toward unions and incumbents firms, it’s not really because I object to the short-term costs of these bad policies. And it’s not because of the corporate conspiracy theories that obsess the modern left. It’s because I don’t want to sacrifice the invisible possibilities of free market progress.
Where we’ll be in 100, or 400 years, is as incomprehensible to me as it would be for Edward Winslow walking into Market Basket. I’m thankful to be living in his unimaginable future, and for what’s next.
If you’ll excuse me, I have to plant some rye seeds if I want to have any bread next spring. Happy Thanksgiving.