Saturday, November 27, 2010

Historical evidence vs historical fantasy

The "how private property rights saved the Pilgrims" fairy tale that I wrote about the other day certainly has its ardent supporters. The problem is that it is a near-total fabrication — a fine specimen of the kind of hand-waving reasoning, glib anachronisms, and misuse of historical evidence that characterizes a great deal of what passes for historical "lessons" presented by the tea partyites.

The one kernel of actual historical evidence used to support this entire fantasy is Plymouth governor William Bradford's description of the discontent that the "common course" engendered among the colonists. But nowhere is there any evidence that this discontent produced famine or failure; indeed the first Thanksgiving was observed in 1621, the year after the Plymouth settlers arrived, as a celebration of their bountiful first harvest. Nor is it anything but the most naive kind of historical anachronism to call the "common course" of the Plymouth settlers "socialism" or "collectivism." Nor is there any evidence that the allocation of individual plots of corn land to each family in 1623 "saved" the Pilgrims, as the spinners of this right-wing allegory allege. Nor, for that matter, did this alteration in 1623 extend to anything like modern capitalism or property rights or free markets: as Bradford noted, the allocation of individual corn plots was for "only for present use" and conferred no right of inheritance; meanwhile, in every other respect the colony continued "to go on in the general way as before."

And, as I noted in my previous post, at Jamestown — where disaster and famine did occur — it was not because of the way property was held but because of the incompetence, greed, laziness, and false expectations of the settlers, who lacked practical skills. (And yes, Jamestown features in the same "socialist state"-to-"free market," failure-to-abundance fairy tales of the right; tea party supporter Dick Armey cited Jamestown in a speech at the National Press Club earlier this year making this same claim.)

But of course the real purpose of all of this historical fantasy-spinning is a false syllogism to begin with: an attempt to ominously equate perfectly mainstream ideas of every decent civilized society (such as, yes, universal access to basic health care) with Soviet-style collectivization. I don't know any sensible person who advocates the abolition of private property. I also don't know any sensible person who thinks that raising taxes on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans by a tenth, or requiring polluters to clean up their act, or preventing financial institutions from endangering the entire free market system through irresponsible greed is "socialism," much less that it will destroy private property or the incentives of the free enterprise system.

Most sensible people in fact recognize that with all rights come responsibilities, indeed that rights cannot be successfully maintained without obligations and responsibilities; all the more so, when those who have benefited the most from private property rights owe the most to the commonweal: the educated workers they are able to hire, the justice system that protects and enforces property and contracts, and the social stability without which demagoguery, confiscation, and revolution ensue.