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The Jamestown and Plymouth Colonies: Seedbeds of Free-Market Capitalism

Guest Commentary · Nov. 19, 2019

By John White

In 2020, we will observe the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim landing at Plymouth, Massachusetts. It will highlight a four-century-long tradition of religious freedom in America.

But there is another freedom-based tradition in America even older: free enterprise. It was practiced at the Plymouth colony but began in 1607 with the earlier English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia.

There is no better justification for the free-market capitalist system of economics than the story of the first two permanent English settlements in America, Plymouth and Jamestown. Both colonies would have failed completely if their leaders had not recognized that their initial economic system, communism, was not working but rather was leading to their destruction.

I do not mean Marxist communism, which emerged centuries later and was based on atheism and naked military-political force. No, the economic system put in place at both colonies can properly be called Christian communism.

Why that term? Both colonies, or plantations, as they were called, were distinctly Christian in character, and both implemented a version of economics that was based on the New Testament. With no disrespect intended, Jesus can be regarded one of the earliest communists in history, coming from an Essene background that was distinctly communal. The early Christians, therefore, following in his way, also lived communally or communistically — i.e., had collective ownership and use of property. This is shown in the Book of Acts, which is the oldest record of how the earliest Christians lived. Specifically, in Acts 2:44 and 4:32, they are described by St. Paul as living communally by selling all they had, contributing their wealth to the group, and having “all things in common.” Various monastic orders and communes still do that today.

Why didn’t Christian communism work at Jamestown and Plymouth? The answer is simple: ego, or human self-centeredness. That is the reason the plantations nearly failed and so many other utopian experiments in history have failed. The key to success in Christian communal living is the radical transformation of consciousness that Jesus called his followers to attain — a God-centered rather than self-centered state of mind called enlightenment, or “the peace which passeth understanding.” It was not present at Jamestown and Plymouth — at least not in sufficient degree—to sustain the economic system. The self-centeredness of the people living there undermined what was intended as a noble way of living based on the Bible.

Within a few years, each community found that some of its members were lazy, irresponsible, and willing to take advantage of others simply by not contributing to the communal establishment while nevertheless taking from it. In Of Plymouth Plantation: 1620-1647, his history of the Plymouth Colony, Gov. William Bradford wrote this about what he called simply “communism,” noting that it was a failed experiment in “communal service”: “At Plymouth some men had not exerted themselves because tangible evidence was lacking that their efforts in any way contributed to their personal well being.” Similarly, Capt. John Smith, who had charge of the Jamestown Colony, recorded:

When our people were fed out of the common storehouse and labored jointly together, glad was he who could slip away from his labor or slumber over his task. He cared not, presuming that howsoever the harvest prospered, the general storehouse must maintain him. Even the most honest among them would hardly take so much true pains in a week under the public ownership and common storehouse system, as now for themselves they will do in a day. So that, we reaped not so much corn from the labor of thirty as now three or four would provide for themselves.

The egotism — the lazy, irresponsible self-centeredness — of those parasitic people thought, “Why should I work when I can rely on others to provide my living?” (Sound like the welfare system today?) And on the other side of the question were those whom Bradford described a few sentences later in his history of Plymouth Plantation: “For the young men, that were most able and fitte for labor and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to worke for other men’s wives and children without any recompense.” (Sound like fed-up taxpayers today?)

That is precisely what the Jamestown and Plymouth elders learned, and that is why they changed their economic system from a socialistic commonwealth — in which land and its agricultural products were communally owned and cultivated — to free-enterprise capitalism and private ownership of land. Allowing the colonists to keep most of what they produced was an incentive to labor and increased production. (Some food was required as taxation for the support of those who worked in government and other non-farming activities.) Again, from Gov. Bradford:

At last after much debate of things, the governor gave way that they should set corn everyman for his own particular… That had very good success for it made all hands very industrious, so much [more] corn was planted than otherwise would have been… The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundrie years, and that amongst Godly and sober men, may well evince the Vanities of the conceit of Plato’s and other ancients, applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of propertie, and bringing into commone wealth, would make them happy and flourishing, as if they were wiser than God.

The famine of 1623, which nearly wiped out the Pilgrims, gave way to a period of agricultural abundance. That, in turn, enabled the Massachusetts settlers to put down roots, prosper, and play an indispensable role in the ultimate success of the American experiment. Free-market capitalism, meaning the right to own private property and the right to conduct commerce freely while keeping the profits, harnesses egotism or self-interest in a way that actually benefits all. (That is also an objective of Christian communism, but it requires the “mind of Christ” rather than an ego-based mind to work.)

Free-market capitalism also provides greater opportunity and incentive for individuals to rise on the basis of their own talent and effort. It is the means by which the poorest and otherwise most hopeless people can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps (or sandalstraps, as the case may be). Not all make it, of course; there are competitive and monopolistic factors to be reckoned with. But as demonstrated so well and so often in American history, free-enterprise capitalism is a major reason this nation is regarded as the land of opportunity. Personal, economic, social, and political freedom are intimately related in the American way of life — much more so than in any other nation.

Anything economic that supports freedom, personal choice, and the responsibility and accountability for those choices can in principle be regarded as supportive of the process of growth to enlightenment or “the peace which passeth all understanding.” Capitalism is the only socioeconomic system based on the recognition that each individual owns his life; it is the only system in which individuals are free to pursue their rational self-interest, to own property, and to profit from their actions. That “profit” is as much spiritual as it is economic.

The Primary Value of Free Enterprise

The primary value of free enterprise is its respect for and expression of certain fundamental moral principles. Foremost is individual freedom, which in the American perspective on human society is a natural, inalienable right. Next, free enterprise functions on the basis of exchanges that require honesty and honor in the parties involved. Dishonest people or people without integrity soon earn a reputation that drives away further business for them, leading to failure or legal sanction. (However, practice does not always live up to theory, so caveat emptor — “Let the buyer beware” — is still wise advice.)

Free enterprise also functions on the basis of giving customers the most value at the lowest price. Unless someone has a monopoly in business, that person must compete with others for customers. Hence there is constant pressure for increased value and lower prices of goods or services. (Moreover, businesses generally follow a policy of credit or refund if a customer is not satisfied.)

This has two benefits. First, it spurs technological innovation so that “the best” is always improving and the standard of living rises across society. (“A rising tide lifts all boats.”) Second, it forces businesses to become more productive. This results in lowered expenses and increased profits that are shared with employees (in order to retain their skills, experience, and morale) and stakeholders (in order to retain their investments and good will), thus improving their standard of living and, more generally, their society’s standard of living.

In addition, businesses constantly scrutinize their competitors and are quick to denounce dishonest or questionable practices. Thus, free enterprise has still another benefit: It tends to be self-policing, and nearly all industries, trades, and professions have their own regulatory boards that seek to uphold the reputation of their group by requiring ethical activity from those in it. (The Better Business Bureau is an American invention.)

All this helps to place society on a moral foundation of honesty, responsibility, and accountability, which is a necessary precondition for societal self-government and personal growth to enlightenment or “the mind of Christ.” Annual surveys that rate countries as places to do business constantly rank America at or near the top because the moral climate of this nation rejects bribery, payoffs, false accounting, and other forms of dishonest dealings that are deeply entrenched in the Asian and Middle Eastern countries at the bottom of the ranking. (Note that the Enron Corporation accounting scandal was an exception, not the rule, and it resulted in public outrage and government prosecution.)

The brilliance of the capitalist free-market economy is this: It harnesses the force of self-interest into a system that functions to produce enlightened self-interest. The choices of the individual produce something that is best for both the individual and the many in an economic, social, and moral sense by preserving freedom while improving the material quality of life.

In short, the free-market economy is an expression of the highest spiritual principle: freedom. It is a partial embodiment, at the level of mass consciousness, of the ancient concept of spiritual liberation.

Thank you, Jamestown and Plymouth.

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