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Puritans, Parables, and Paradoxes
A Thanksgiving Study

November 21, 2010
by William P. Meyers

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The history of the first Thanksgiving celebrated by the Pilgrims, a group of Puritans at Plymouth, Massachusetts, then a colony of Great Britain, in 1621, has become the stuff out of which parables are built. Lately conservative free-market fans, including Tea Party type Republicans, have promoted this parable:

The Puritans tried socialism in 1620 and were starving because there was no incentive for anyone to work if the food produced would be divided up. They came to their senses, probably through direct revelation from Free Market (God), and changed to a private property system in 1621. Like magic, the crops that year were abundant and so they gave thanks and even invited the local Indians.

We have a more recent Thanksgiving informing the parable told by liberals:

The false god Free Market failed in 1929, but his priests, the Republican Party, let Americans starve until the Democratic Party took power in 1933. The New Deal fed those Americans who had not already died of starvation. People really had something to give thanks for at Thanksgiving in 1933, and even more so in 1934. As a result, people learned that a giant, benevolent government, led by the Democratic Party, was needed to intervene in the free markets on occasion.

Both parables have a germ of factual truth in them, and both summarize complex circumstances by leaving out a lot of facts that don't fit into the parables.

To liberals and leftists it may seem strange that what was obviously a Free Market failure in 2007 and 2008 should have been turned by Republicans and the Tea Party into an assault on government. If the government made a mistake (and remember it was a mixed government after the election of 2006, with the Democratic Party controlling Congress under Republican President George Bush), it was that it did not intervene in the markets early enough.

Thanksgiving in Plymouth was no simple historical event either, although the number of people involved were few enough. The ideology of the free market had not been invented in 1620. The Pilgrim Puritans were mainly concerned with religious freedom. Their idea of freedom was simplistic: they did not want to be told by the British government how to worship their version of God. They had not advanced to the point of understanding that they should not try to force their version of religion on others.

The rise and fall of Puritanism in England is worth a good deal of study. Its rise led eventually to civil war, the beheading of King Charles I, and the eventual triumph of Parliamentary democracy and religious tolerance over a Monarchy heading a single national religion. This was a long complex process, however, that began before Martin Luther (with John Wycliffe) and never quite reached a full conclusion even in the 20th century. It is just one historical example of societies cycling between puritanism and tolerance in history.

The Pilgrims reached America a generation before the English Civil War broke out in 1642. The spread of Puritanism in Great Britain began in reaction to the widespread corruption of English society, which ranged from economic, religious and legal corruption to public drunkenness and an assortment of vices, notably gambling. Puritanism can be characterized as a cultural paradox, an overreaction to overindulgence and unethical behavior. Puritans were good (they believed Godly) neighbors who dressed plainly, dealt fairly in business, and got their Christianity directly from the Bible. They tended to prosper not because they had a more correct version of Christianity than Catholics or Anglicans, but because they worked more, saved, invested, and where trusted by their fellow men.

A Puritan society, however, can be a grim society to live in. The rules tend to be set by zealots, who are not content to set a good example by their own behavior. The Puritans inflicted hard punishment on citizens for such perversions as card playing, dancing, pre-marital sex, and theft.

Sound familiar? It should be. The Taliban in Afghanistan are a Puritanical phenomena very similar to the Puritans who founded Massachusetts. The Taliban were mostly sons of men who had died in the Soviet-Afghan war, brought up in Islamic orphanages. In an Afghanistan filled with rapists and extortionists, the puritan goodness of the Taliban appealed to women especially. They seemed like they really were a gift from Allah. They punished men for raping women, and took no bribes themselves. But once in power they also stoned to death women who committed adultery, and stopped people from playing music.

When puritans are successful in restoring social order, people forget why they put the puritans in charge in the first place. They sneak out for a beer, some music, perhaps an illicit kiss. They begin to grumble. Often, when in power, the former puritans feel they have earned a bit of compensation for all their hard work for the general good. They losen up, perhaps even become corrupt. It is difficult to maintain a truly puritan society for more than a single generation.

The best societies avoid the extremes of the puritan vs. corruption cycle. They also avoid the extremes of the socialism vs. free markets debate. Both private businesses (including corporations) and government have a mixed record getting things done. Free markets can lead to local, national, and global catastrophes, but so can bad government. The secret sauce of success, presuming an organization has a good mission, is the attitude of the workers and managers, whether public or private. But in this complex world, anything can fail, including local coops, global corporations, and government programs.

Some times crops fail and famine ensues despite the best of human efforts. For Thanksgiving I would like to thank all the people who have kept records, including the Pilgrims, because I enjoy reading those records.

If there is food on your table give thanks, whether you won it through free markets endeavors or paid for it with socialist food stamps. It is all good to eat.

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