Socialism calls to mind distant countries and tyrants such as Lenin, Castro, and Stalin. These leaders have somehow earned the respect of Democrats like Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez despite millions of deaths and collapsed economies in every country that these despots touched.
You don’t have to look to the Soviet Union, Venezuela, China, Cuba, or North Korea to find fault with socialism or communism.
You just need to look back in time to America’s own shores.
In 1620, the Mayflower’s passengers arrived from England to begin settling what would become known as Plymouth Colony. While many were seeking religious freedom, others were seeking a different kind of freedom from the greed, corruption, and materialism that marked their lives in England.
These settlers embarked on their new lives in a collectivist utopia founded on the principles of Plato’s “Republic.” The idea sounds familiar to modern Americans. Everyone would work and share their efforts with other members of the colony. There was no ownership of private property and no acquisition of personal goods.
As can be expected, things quickly turned sour in their utopia. Originally, all colonists participated in the work and enjoyed equal shares of their combined labors. It wasn’t long before some colonists understood that they and their families would be receiving equal shares of the harvest regardless of the work they did, or did not, do. Knowing this, the less industrious colonists began showing up late to the fields and doing less and less work.
Resentment among the harder workers built quickly. They also understood that their fellow colonists would receive equal portions of their labor, even though they did not earn their share. Understandably, the harder-working colonists now arrived in the fields late and became unproductive.
Governor Bradford reveals the unraveling utopia in his diaries, stating:
“For the young men that were able and fit for labor and service did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children, without recompense. The strong, or men of parts, had no more division of food, clothes, etc. then he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labor, and food, clothes, etc. with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignant and disrespect unto them. And for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc. they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could husbands brook it.”
Trouble was brewing in paradise, and the entire colony was nearly destroyed during the first, bleak years of their failing socialist experiment. Predictably, the rations from the collected harvest were not enough to keep starvation at bay. As it stood, only a small percentage of the original colony survived socialism.
Those who survived understood why their utopia had failed. The elders gathered and introduced a new concept, one that embraced individualism. Workers now kept the fruits of their labor, and private property ownership was established.
The changes in the colony’s prosperity were profound. Governor Bradford noted that the link between rewards and hard work motivated both men and women to work harder and more willingly than in prior years. A surplus of crops meant that individual needs were met, with enough left over to help those who needed it. Unlike the years prior, there were opportunities for the sale and trade of excess crops and goods.
Governor Bradford explained that socialism was not compatible with prosperity, and was thoroughly at odds with human nature. He writes:
“The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years, and that amongst the Godly and sober men, may well convince of the vanity and conceit of Plato’s and other ancients— that the taking away of property, and bringing into a commonwealth, would make them happy and flourishing, as if they were wiser than God. For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed confusion and discontent and slowed much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.”
Liberals brand the failure of in 17th-century American socialism as greed, arguing that the experiment went awry because the colonists wanted to own property and keep the rewards of their work.
In an ironic twist, conservatives couldn’t create a more compelling argument against socialism than that.