The Pilgrims’ lesson for today’s health care debate

By Byron Schlomach, Ph.D.
Goldwater Institute
It is often said that if we don’t study history, we are condemned to repeat it. The Pilgrims of yesterday have a valuable lesson for Americans in today’s health care debate.
Many today do not know that the Pilgrims initially faced continuous famine of their own making. In his history of the colony, the Pilgrims’ long-time governor William Bradford described the crisis and the eventual solution.

The colony initially practiced a form of socialized agriculture in the belief that it put them all “on an equality throughout.” But, this didn’t produce enough food, so the Pilgrims decided to allow “each man to plant corn for his own household.”

Bradford wrote:

This was very successful. It made all hands very industrious, so that much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been…The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to plant corn, while before they would allege weakness and inability; and to have compelled them would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.

Contrast the Pilgrims to today’s leaders in Washington, DC. The Pilgrim leaders chose to fundamentally change direction rather than rely on the collective to meet their needs. Facing the same choice today, President Obama and Congress are choosing the opposite course.

The health care bill voted out of the U.S. House is a case study in government collectivism. Every person would be compelled by government to buy health insurance. Subsidies would be taken from some to pay for others. Employers would be forced to provide health insurance or face harsh financial penalties. All of this would directly interfere with our freedom to make our own health care decisions.

The practice of medicine would also be more highly regulated than it already is. Government would create a National Health Service Corps and a Public Health Workforce Corps. Physicians would be prohibited from owning hospitals–that is like keeping mechanics from owning car repair shops. And medical practice would essentially be dictated by the government through comparative effectiveness research and other controls.

Yes, some might gain a measure of security from increased health care collectivization, but the American people will pay a steep price in terms of a rising deficit, the loss of freedom to make their own health care decisions, and a loss of overall quality and innovation in health care.

When the Pilgrims made individuals instead of the collective responsible for raising food, everybody won. Everybody ate more even as some were able to eat more than others. To have continued as they had, though, would have been disastrous.

The Pilgrims’ famine ended when they recognized the poor incentives they had created and changed them. We have created poor incentives in health care as tax policy and social programs encourage us to rely on others to pay our health bills. Now we are on the path to making incentives worse, not changing them. 

We must change federal income tax policy to allow taxpayers to get the same tax deductions that employers get when buying health insurance. We should expand health savings accounts to allow unlimited saving for our own health care. And we should allow unlimited charitable tax-free distributions from those accounts when we choose to help others.

As William Bradford said, “Let none argue that this (failure of collectivism) is due to human failing rather than to this communistic plan of life in itself.” We have the ability to truly address the rising cost of health care in America, but a government-run health system is not it.

Byron Schlomach, Ph.D., is the director of the Goldwater Institute’s Center for Economic Prosperity.


  1. Anytime you see ellipsis it is always worth checking to see what was left out. Here is the full paragraph:
    “All this while no supply was heard of, neither knew they when they might expect any. So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other thing to go on in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number, for that end, only for present use (but made no division for inheritance) and ranged all boys and youth under some family. 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.”

    What actually happened is that this applied only to corn harvesting, not all the other methods of gathering and hunting food. It was also achieved by the colony assigning land to people based on the size of their families and assigned children with no families to a specific family to take care of. The land was not owned by the family but was a communal resource they were permitted to use. Not exactly the free market lesson Dr. Schlomach wishes to read into it.

  2. Were the pilgrims here legally?

  3. Byron Schlomach says

    Todd, nothing the rest of the paragraph contradicts what I said. What’s your point? In addition, here’s the next paragraph Bradford wrote, and there’s another paragraph about going totally to private property a year later that I could post:
    “The failure of the experiment of communal service, which was tried for several years, and by good and honest men proves the emptiness of the theory of Plato and other ancients,applauded by some of later times, — that the taking away of private property, and the possession of it in community, by a commonwealth, would make a state happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For in this instance, community of property (so far as it went) was found to
    breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment which would have been to the general benefit and comfort. For the young men who were most able and fit for service objected to being forced to spend their time and strength in working for other men’s wives and children, without any recompense. The strong man or the resourceful man had no more share of food, clothes, etc., than the weak man who was not able to do a quarter the other could. This was thought injustice. The aged and graver men, who were ranked and equalized in labour, food, clothes, etc., with the humbler and younger ones, thought it some indignity and disrespect to them. As for men’s wives who were obliged to do service for other men, such as cooking, washing their clothes, etc., they considered it a kind of slavery, and many husbands would not
    brook it. This feature of it would have been worse still, if they had been men of an inferior class. If (it was thought) all were to share alike, and all were to do alike, then all were on an equality
    throughout, and one was as good as another; and so, if it did not actually abolish those very relations which God himself has set among men, it did at least greatly diminish the mutual respect that is so important should be preserved amongst them. Let none argue that this is due to human failing, rather than to this communistic plan of life in itself. I answer, seeing that all men have this failing in them, that God in His wisdom saw that another plan of life was fitter for them.”

  4. My point – they only did this for their corn crop and they had communal land management and assigned families to feed children not their own. While rejecting a pure ‘communistic’ lifestyle they hardly adopted a libertarian approach.

    Oh, and it seems relevant to point out that the Native nations in the area, the ones that saved the Pilgrims, prospered quite well adopting collectivist economic models.

  5. Basil St. John says

    I think Byron’s onto something. All we need to do is let families provide medical care to each other and outcomes will be much better. I’d much rather my own father perform surgery on me than some college-educated, ivory-tower, elitist medical doctor.

    Now where did I put the leeches?

  6. Byron Schlomach says

    OK, Todd, since you insist I’ll post the additional Bradford quote from a year later and Basil, quit being foolish. What the Pilgrims prove is that a free enterprise system does not preclude good will and charity and, in fact, makes this more possible by creating more prosperity. I mean really guys, think deeply, please.
    “These matters premised, I will now proceed with my account of affairs here. But before I come to other things I must say a word about their planting this year. They felt the benefit of their last year’s harvest; for by planting corn on their own account they managed, with a great deal of patience, to overcome famine. This reminds me of a saying of Seneca’s (Epis. 123): that an important part of liberty is a well-governed belly, and patience in want. the settlers now began to consider corn more precious than silver; and those that had some to spare began to trade with the others for small things, by the quart, pottle, and peck, etc.; for they had not money, and if they had, corn was preferred to it. In order that they might raise their crops to better advantage, the made suit to the Governor to have some land apportioned for permanent holdings, and not by yearly lot, whereby the plots which the more industrious had brought under good culture one year, would change hands the next, and others would reap the advantage; with the result that anuring and culture of the land were neglected. It was well considered, and their request was granted. Every person was given the one acre of land, for them and theirs, and they were to have no more till the seven years had expired; it was all as near the town as possible, so that they might be kept close together, for greater safety and better attention to the general employments.”

  7. Byron,
    I would put forward that ‘thinking deeply’ would be realizing that a simplistic lesson from a barely surviving agrarian society would hold little value for an advanced post-industrial society with complex division of labor, credit markets, advanced finance, etc. But keep putting forward the WorldNet Daily level of analysis. I am sure it is a big hit with this crowd.

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