An Experiment with Equality of Outcome: The Case of Jamestown

This passage is from Michael Huemer’s wonderful book The Problem of Political Authority, pages 192-194. 

Take the case of a social theory proposing that all citizens should work for the benefit of society, while receiving equal pay. A simple theoretical prediction is that, in such a system, productivity will decline. Individuals have a high degree of control over their own productivity, and greater productivity usually demands greater effort….

This prediction is in fact correct. The twentieth century’s experiments with social systems in this vicinity are well-known, so I shall not dwell on them. An interesting, but little-known illustration is provided by America’s first experiment with communism, which took place at Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America. When the colony was established in 1607, its founding charter stipulated that each colonist would be entitled to an equal share of the colony’s product, regardless of how much that individual personally produced. The result: the colonists did little work, and little food was produced. Of the 104 founding colonists, two-thirds died in the first year–partly due to unclean water, but mostly due to starvation. More colonists arrived from England, so that in 1609 there were 500 colonists. Of those, only 60 survived the winter of 1609-10. In 1611, England sent a new governor, Sir Thomas Dale, who found the skeletal colonists bowling in the streets instead of working. Their main source of food was wild plants and animals, which they gathered secretely at night so as to evade the obligation to share with their neighbors. Dale later converted the colony to a system based on private property, granting every colonist a three-acre plot to tend for his own individual benefit. The result was a dramatic increase in production. According to Captain John Smith’s contemporaneous history,

When our people were fed out of the common store and labored jointly together, glad was he [who] could slip from his labor or slumber over his task, he care not how; nay, the most honest among them would hardly take so much true pains in a week as now for themselves they will do in a day … so that we reaped not so much corn from the labors of thirty, as now three or four do provide themselves.

One lesson from this episode is that, simple as the account of human nature I have advanced is, it can yield very useful predictions. If the company that created the Jamestown charter had known a little economics, hundreds of lives might have been spared. Another is that the impact of human selfishness depends greatly on the social system in which people are embedded: in one kind of system, selfishness may have disastrous consequences, while in another, it promotes prosperity.