Rush Limbaugh and the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock

On 26 November 2014, Rush Limbaugh ended his daily three-hour show with a parable about the Pilgrims who legendarily inaugurated the American holiday known as Thanksgiving. He read about it from his book See I Told You So.

What the Pilgrims originally established, says Limbaugh, was a commune, with all property and all production shared equally by all, without regard for whether one individual had been more productive than another. Limbaugh points out that this communism failed, understandably, because there was no individual incentive to work and produce.

As a solution to this problem, Limbaugh tells us, the land that had been held in common was divided into plots, and each family given a plot to till and harvest. This system produced such an overabundance of food that they ended up giving some of it away to the local savages.

Where Limbaugh goes wrong is in calling this latter arrangement capitalism.

Making sure that everybody has property is not capitalism. It conforms to the economic doctrine known as distributism. Distributism is an important ideal in National-Socialism, Fascism, and also Catholic social doctrine. Limbaugh has hammered a square peg into a round hole by calling the Pilgrims’ economy “capitalist.”

Under capitalism, instead of a plot being assigned to each family, the Pilgrims would have been expected to borrow money to buy land. Due to differences in credit, some would have been able to buy more land than others, and some would have gotten none. The ones who could not get any land would have had to seek employment with the ones who did. Then, of those who had been able to buy land, it is certain that with excessive production of food — which drives down the price — some would not bring in enough money to cover the interest on the loans, and they would lose their land, so that they too would then have to seek employment. In the end, under capitalism, unemployment would have forced many of the Pilgrims to find new farmland in less desirable locations outside of the colony, where they could produce for themselves and survive, while within the colony a small minority of capitalist Pilgrims would have owned most of the land, probably forming a trust among themselves to make sure that they would not overproduce food and drive the price too low.

That’s a typical representation of how capitalism works out.  It is not at all like having a central authority allocate adequate means of production for each family to be self-sufficient. Capitalism, while preaching self-reliance as a virtue, differs from distributism in that it gives no assurance that the majority will have the means to achieve it. In fact, the inherent tendency of unregulated capitalism is to drive the majority to poverty and dependence.

I wrote to Limbaugh immediately after his show, informing him that the ideal economy that he had described was not capitalism but distributism, and supplying a link to an entry in an online encyclopaedia that explains the doctrine. Will he take note of the correction? Most likely not.

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