Thanking Private Property, by John Stossel


Happy Thanksgiving!

But beware of the “tragedy of the commons”. He almost killed the pilgrims.

Now, via Washington, DC, he’s probably coming for us.

The tragedy of the commons is a concept that emerged from an essay by environmentalist Garrett Hardin. He wrote about how cattle ranchers sharing a common piece of land soon destroy that land. This is because every pastoralist is encouraged to put cattle on the communal land. Soon the additional animals eat all the grass. The shared grazing space is destroyed because no pastoralist has an interest in keeping it.

If the pastoralists put up a few fences and divide the land, each pastor has an incentive to limit grazing. It saves grass and livestock.

Sharing things and “public” ownership sounds good, but only private ownership reliably inspires people to conserve and protect.

No one washes a rental car.

I’m talking about it now because Democrats’ new multibillion dollar spending bills aim to expand the commons: no more free highways, free health care, free child care, free money for parents , housing subsidies, tax credits for electric vehicles, etc.

All these documents discourage responsibility by making it easier to take “commons”.

Saving for retirement? Why? The government will cover it. Save for college? Why? The government will give you grants and loans and then cancel those loans.

I’m talking about it now because that same kind of thinking almost killed the pilgrims.

When they came to America, the pilgrims decided to share everything. Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford wrote that the Pilgrims believed that “taking property and (making it communal) … would make it happy and flourishing”.

Food and supplies were distributed as needed. Pilgrims would not selfishly produce food for themselves.

In other words, like Senator Bernie Sanders and many young Americans today, they fell in love with the idea of socialism.

The result was ugly. When the first harvest arrived, there was almost not enough food. Many pilgrims died that winter. If the Wampanoag American Indians had not helped them, all might have starved to death.

It was the tragedy of the commons. No pilgrim owned the crops they cultivated, so no one had an incentive to work harder to produce more to sell to others. Since even the lazy people ate the communal supply, they had no incentive to work hard.

Many did not.

The strong men thought it was an “injustice” that they “had no more in the distribution of food and clothing than one who was weak and unable to do a shift the other could”. The women had to cook and clean for the husbands of other women, and they “saw it as a kind of slavery.”

Shared farming, Bradford concluded, “has proven to create a lot of confusion and discontent and delay a lot of jobs that would have been to their advantage.”

When the pilgrims ran out of food, they “began to think how they could harvest as much corn as they could and get a better harvest … so that they would not languish in misery again.”

Their solution was private property. They divided the collective farm and gave each family a piece of land.

It was a great success. “It made all the hands very industrious, so as much corn was planted as it otherwise would have been,” Bradford wrote. “The women now willingly went into the field and took their young with them to plant wheat. Before, they “alleged weakness and incapacity.”

Thanks to the individual plots, food shortages turned into a surplus that became the holiday we now call Thanksgiving.

“All men have this corruption,” Bradford observed. In common, everyone wants to take as much as possible.

Private property created prosperity.

This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for private property.

That’s why I can eat turkey.

John Stossel is the author of “Give Me a Break: How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats, and Scam Artists and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media”. For other Creators Syndicate authors and designers, visit

Photo credit: shawnkonopaski at Pixabay


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