Thanksgiving plays an important role in Americans’ views of ourselves and our heritage. The mere fact that Thanksgiving is time off from work and school cannot by itself explain the astonishing number of Americans who travel to be with those they care about to celebrate the holiday. But our understanding does not extend very deep.
Many Americans don’t realize the Pilgrims started their adventure under a communal system, and only moved to a property-rights based system because they were starving. That change gave us far more to celebrate now than the pilgrims did then, because private-property based systems prohibit violations of one another’s’ rights, and enable the greatest area for competitive advancements.
An excellent way to review the essential contributors to the bounty Americans now celebrate (even in hard times, for many) is to consider an excerpt from Leonard Read’s traditional opening address at Foundation for Economic Education seminars, first given 60 years ago.
The American people are becoming more and more afraid of, and are running away from, their own revolution.
Our Pilgrim Fathers at Plymouth Rock…began the practice of…from each according to ability, to each according to need–and by force! [But] these communalistic or communistic practices were discontinued…because the members of the Pilgrim colony were starving and dying.
During the third winter Governor Bradford got together with the remaining members of the colony and said to them, in effect…’We are going to try the idea of ‘to each according to merit,’…the private property principle…nothing more nor less than each individual having a right to the fruits of his own labor…Governor Bradford records that “Any generall wante or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.”
This private property principle…[led] to what I refer to as the real American revolution…The real American revolution was a novel concept or idea which broke with the whole political history of the world.
Up until 1776 men had been contesting with each other, killing each other by the millions, over the age-old question of which of the numerous forms of authoritarianism–that is, man-made authority–should preside as sovereign over man. And then, in 1776…the new idea…“that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”…This is the essence of Americanism. This is the rock upon which the whole ‘American miracle’ was founded.
It…[denied] that the state is the endower of man’s rights, thus declaring that the state is not sovereign.
It is one thing to state such a revolutionary concept as this; it’s quite another thing to implement it—to put it into practice. To accomplish this, our Founding Fathers added two political instruments—the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. These two instruments were essentially a set of prohibitions; prohibitions not against the people but against the thing the people…had learned to fear, namely, over-extended government.
[America] more severely limited government than government had ever before been limited in the history of the world. And there were benefits that flowed from this severe limitation of the state.
There wasn’t a single person who turned to the government for security, welfare, or prosperity because government was so limited that it had nothing on hand to dispense, nor did it then have the power to take from some that it might give to others. To what or to whom do people turn if they cannot turn to government for security, welfare, or prosperity?…to themselves.
All over the world the American people gained the reputation of being self-reliant.
When government is limited to the inhibition of the destructive actions of men—that is, when it is limited to inhibiting fraud and depredation, violence and misrepresentation, when it is limited to invoking a common justice—then there is no organized force standing against the productive or creative actions of citizens. As a consequence of this limitation on government, there occurred a freeing, a releasing, of creative human energy, on an unprecedented scale.
This was the combination mainly responsible for the ‘American miracle,’ founded on the belief that the Creator, not the state, is the endower of man’s rights.
This manifested itself…as individual freedom of choice. People had freedom of choice as to how they employed themselves. They had freedom of choice as to what they did with the fruits of their own labor.
But something happened to this remarkable idea of ours, this revolutionary concept…the people we placed in government office as our agents…discovered that the force which inheres in government, which the people had delegated to them in order to inhibit the destructive actions of man, this monopoly of force could be used to invade the productive and creative areas in society.
The extent to which government in America has departed from the original design of inhibiting the destructive actions of man and invoking a common justice; the extent to which government has invaded the productive and creative areas; the extent to which the government in this country has assumed the responsibility for the security, welfare, and prosperity of our people is a measure of the extent to which socialism and communism have developed here in this land of ours.
There was a time, about…, when the average citizen had somewhere between 95 and 98 percent freedom of choice with each of his income dollars. That was because the tax take of the government—federal, state, and local—was between 2 and 5 percent of the earned income of the people. But, as the emphasis shifted from this earlier design, as government began to move in to invade the productive and creative areas and to assume the responsibility for the security, welfare, and prosperity of the people, the percentage of the take of the people’s earned income increased. The percentage of the take kept going up and up and up.
Has there ever been an instance, historically, when a country has been on this toboggan and succeeded in reversing itself?…The only significant one took place in England after the Napoleonic Wars.
England’s debt, in relation to her resources, was larger than ours [in 1961]; her taxation was confiscatory; restrictions on the exchanges of goods and services were numerous, and there were strong controls on production and prices. Had it not been for the smugglers, many people would have starved!
There were in England such men as John Bright and Richard Cobden, men who understood the principle of freedom of exchange. Over in France, there was a politician by the name of Chevalier, and an economist named Frédéric Bastiat.
Bastiat was feeding his brilliant ideas to Cobden and Bright, and these men were preaching the merits of freedom of exchange. Members of Parliament listened and, as a consequence, there began the greatest reform movement in British history.
Parliament repealed the Corn Laws, which here would be like repealing subsidies to farmers. They repealed the Poor Laws, which here would be like repealing Social Security. And fortunately for them they had a monarch…who relaxed the authority that the English people themselves believed to be implicit in her office. She gave them…a permissive kind of freedom…Englishmen, as a result, roamed all over the world achieving unparalleled prosperity and building an enlightened empire.
This development continued until just before World War I. Then the same old political disease set in again…It has many popular names…such as socialism, communism, state interventionism, and welfare statism. It has other names such as fascism and Nazism. It has some local names like New Deal, Fair Deal, New Republicanism, New Frontier, and the like.
If you will take a careful look at these so-called “progressive ideologies,” you will discover that each of them has a characteristic common to all the rest. This common characteristic is…a rapidly growing belief in the use of organized force—government—not to carry out its original function of inhibiting the destructive actions of men and invoking a common justice, but to control the productive and creative activity of citizens in society.
As this belief in the use of force as a means of creative accomplishment increases, the belief in free men—that is, men acting freely, competitively, cooperatively, voluntarily—correspondingly diminishes. Increase compulsion and freedom declines. Therefore, the solution to this problem, if there be one, must take a positive form, namely, the restoration of a faith in what free men can accomplish…either you accept the idea of the Creator as the endower of man’s rights, or you submit to the idea that the state is the endower of man’s rights…We have forgotten the real source of our rights…the free market, private property, limited government philosophy with its moral and spiritual antecedents.
The real problem is developing a leadership for this philosophy.
[It] requires that an individual achieve that degree of understanding which makes it utterly impossible for him to have any hand in supporting or giving any encouragement to any socialistic activities…however disguised. People reject socialism in name, but once any socialistic activity has been Americanized, nearly everybody thinks it’s all right.
Read the ten points of the Communist Manifesto and see how close we have come to achieving them right here in America.
The philosophy of freedom is at the very pinnacle of the hierarchy of values; and if you wish to further the cause of freedom, you must use methods that are consonant with your objective. This means relying on the power of attraction.
Freedom is an ore that lies much deeper than most of us realize…A great effort is required to dig up this ore that will save America.
We will find these miners of the freedom ore among those who love this country.
This article, A Thanksgiving Address—and Warning—Worth Remembering, was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education and appears here with permission. Please support their mission.