Nov

24

 Thanksgiving is about sharing prosperity, and it's a good time to think about where prosperity comes from. The Pilgrims figured it out in 1623. We'll retell that story as we celebrate the way it lives on in countless U.S. families and companies today. And in particular at one company, McDonald's (MCD, news, msgs), that in its humdrum way beautifully demonstrates the source of prosperity and the American way of life.

The Pilgrims started with so little. They had to hide in England because the authorities considered them dangerous. They fled to Holland but found themselves compelled to take menial jobs. On the way to America, many of the company died. They lost their way to Virginia and landed in Massachusetts just as winter set in. The Virginia Co., their backers in London, went bankrupt and couldn't send relief supplies.

To cope with want, the Pilgrims made the same mistake that so many countries do even today: They divided all their land, efforts, supplies and produce in common, to each according to his need.

As always in such systems, need surpassed supply.

The Pilgrims spent their first three years in America suffering from hunger, illness, cold and infighting. People stole from the common stores "despite being well whipped," according to William Bradford's "Of Plymouth Plantation."

Bradford, governor of Plymouth Colony, records what happened next: "They began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, that they might not continue to languish in misery. After much debate, the Governor decided that each settler should plant corn for themselves."

Under the Land Division of 1623, each family received one acre per family member to farm. That year, three times as many acres were planted as the year before. Prosperity was not long in coming.

The Pilgrims turned from their Old World system of common ownership to incentives. They didn't go that way out of ideological conviction, but because they didn't have the luxury of waiting for support to come to them.

How many families in America tell the same tale? "When we came here, we worked hard and our lives were better."

But that wasn't the end of the story. Before the switch to incentives, the hungry settlers were at each other's throats. Hard workers resented receiving the same portions of food as those who were not able to do even a quarter of the work they did. Young men resented having to work without compensation to feed other men's wives and children. Mature men resented receiving the same allotments as did the younger and meaner sort. Women resented being forced to do laundry and other chores for men other than their husbands. Many people felt too sick to work.

But when they were allowed to farm their own plots, the most amazing thing happened. Everybody — the sick, the women and even the children — went out willingly into the fields to work. People started to respect and like one another again. It wasn't that they were bad people, Bradford explained; it's just human nature. Adam Smith came to the same conclusion later, and Friedrich Hayek updated Smith's ideas for the 20th century. But we don't need to go back to New England for understanding. Similar outcomes can be seen at McDonald's every day.

For centuries, people on the lower rungs of the social ladder weren't able to eat meat. They ate grains and beans. But people like beef. And chicken.

When McDonald's started popping up in every neighborhood, all of a sudden there was an affordable place for families to eat. Previously, one of the main differences between the upper and lower classes was that the rich could eat out. Even if the poor could afford the tab, they couldn't hire baby sitters, and they couldn't bring their kids to the elegant establishments designed for the rich because they would have disturbed the other diners.

Most kids don't like fancy restaurants anyway. They want fries, not polenta with wild mushrooms. They want fried codfish, not turbot. They want burgers, not lamb chops.

How many people has McDonald's made happy? How many families has it brought together? How many Happy Meals have been eaten there? How many kids have enjoyed the playgrounds? How many tired workers have been able to catch a quick meal? How many women are able to pursue careers and other productive activities and dreams because McDonald's has freed them from the task of having to cook every night?

The Pilgrims might have served 200 or 300 American Indians at their Thanksgiving feast. McDonald's serves 26 million customers a day at 13,700 U.S. restaurants.

For the traveler, McDonald's is a home away from home, offering so much for so little. The restrooms are clean. And McDonald's serves hot strong organic coffee in smooth cups of some wonderful material that keeps liquids hot without burning the hand, shaped to fit into the cup holders that just happen to be in your car, with carefully designed tops that permit just the right amount to be sipped.

No regulator, no fascist dictator, no socialist planner decreed sip tops or cup holders. But how many late-night drivers have died for the lack of a good cup of coffee? What could be more munificent than saving lives?

And the story doesn't end there. Consider the employees of McDonald's. How many people have worked there and learned the most important lesson in America: The customer is always right?

The anti-this-and-that people who demonstrate against profit incentives and free markets like to single out McDonald's as a symbol of modern capitalism. (They don't mean that in a nice way.) As the McLibel Support Campaign puts it: "(McDonald's) has pioneered many business practices that have been taken up by others, and have come to represent a symbol of the way that society is going –'McDonaldization.'" But when have you ever seen an unhappy customer at McDonald's? There couldn't be too many of them, because about 10% of America eats there each day. Given the choice of cooking at home or going to other restaurants — and competition ensures that there are other restaurants — people go to McDonald's because they trust they'll find good food, quick service and value for money. What could be more munificent, more representative of sharing the fruits of hard work than McDonald's?

McDonald's and the Pilgrims are the essence of America. The people work hard, motivated by the chance for profits. They provide a welcome to others, whether to Indians joining in harvest celebrations, or to customers looking to satisfy their hunger. Their work results in high quality, low costs and family togetherness.

Those humdrum, everyday attributes are what makes America great. That's what we should be celebrating. It's the source of all our munificence, from the first Thanksgiving to today.


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