Eight years ago, almost immediately after the election of Barack Obama, I was a guest on a main stream media financial network. My job was to debate Jared Bernstein, a left-wing polemicist who worked for a union-funded think tank.
I told a story about the original Thanksgiving, and how the memoirs of the governor of the colony record that the colonists had changed their economic model from a communist one based on the pagan philosopher Plato to a private property one based on the teachings of Moses in the Torah. Bernstein scoffed at the information, dismissing it as "revisionism."
I challenged him, asking him if he had ever read Of Plymouth Plantation, which is William Bradford's first-hand account of what had happened. He averred that he had not, and so I asked him how he could reject information from a source which he'd never even read. He quickly changed the subject.
Not long after that Bernstein was appointed to be a member of the Obama economic team, serving as chief economist for Vice President Joe Biden. The subsequent nationalization of banks and auto companies and the lackluster recovery and low work force participation rates (not unlike the idleness which was seen under collectivism in Plymouth Colony) showed that Bernstein never did get around to reading Bradford's account, nor to learning its lessons.
And its lessons are important. When people get "paid" even when they don't work, the results are always the same: People don't work.
As Bradford wrote, "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."
A realistic understanding of human nature sees the family as the central driver of economic progress, because in a family the adults almost always create more wealth than they consume themselves directly. Most of the fruit of their labor goes to the benefit of their family towards whom they have a strong affection grounded in their created nature.
When Plato's utopian ideas for communal family are applied in the real world, even in the limited context of economic communalism, the results are enervating to labor:
"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."
Not surprisingly, the colony starved, and where there is starvation, plague follows. But the people of Plymouth Plantation consulted the scriptures and each other.
"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 ... And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number, for that end."
After the starving years, things turned around rapidly. The culture of the colony shifted from shiftlessness to diligence when families were allowed to keep the produce of their labor. Yes, the part of the story we already know, about how the colonists learned from the Indians about how to grow crops in the New World, is true. But possession of knowledge about how to do something means nothing when the system of economics deprives people of the reasons for doing that thing.
"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."
Colonists were able to learn from the necessity of their circumstances. With only a year or two of provisions, they had only a year or two of margin before they were forced to learn or die. The architects of their social order were in London, far removed from the frontier and its risks. They could read about the world in books, and indulge the faddish reemergence of Platonic philosophy which preceded the Plymouth expedition.
Bradford realized the spiritual roots of the error which had been starving his people and the spiritual roots of the solution.
"The experience that was had in this common course and condition ... may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato's ... and that the taking away of property ... would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God."
After eight years of movement towards collectivism, and rising poverty as well as plunging labor participation rates, there is no evidence that Bernstein or any of the other "best and brightest" members of the administration have learned the lessons of the failure of collectivism. The social engineers almost never do learn; they don't have to when others suffer the consequences of their grand schemes. But there are at least some reasons to believe that perhaps the country is waking up to the reality that our central planners have really turned out not to be "wiser than God."